Pretty Eyes My Woman By Piper Davenport Pretty Eyes My Woman Copyright © 2009 by Piper Davenport Cover Design by Katrina Joyner
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Pretty Eyes My Woman Part I I hated babies so why did I end up acting like one, I'll never know. It's all Billie's fault. I shouldn't have allowed myself to get involved with her mess. Hell, I had my own messes to straighten out but I thought everything would be okay but it wasn't...I had grown up on the other side of Eight Mile Road. A vast distant world of clay faces with upside-down smiles every time they saw this city on the news, my mother one of them. I would become the same kind of woman as my mother . She grew up on the edge of the city: Warrendale, a neighborhood where people like me didn’t really exist at that time, not yet and when we did, we were ignored. In fact, that’s what my grandmother said to her when she told her about me. It was a vicious cycle that my mother had started when she found out that she was pregnant by a man that I never met. But my mother thought she was doing me a favor by not telling me about how the other half lives, my other half. She said that I didn’t need to know about them. They didn’t exist. The ones walking through, driving through, passing through were just visitors. Even their homes were just temporary; Grandma said that we couldn’t exist that way. But she was wrong. Growing up, the voice inside me said: “Why don’t I look like you?” Momma’s reply, a sad little voice said, “The better to see your pretty eyes, my dear.” That was my first important memory of my life with Momma. I remember when she read a letter. It was from across Eight Mile Road. The name I could not pronounce. It was long, at least ten letters. She had been approved for “special housing.” It all started
because of what happened on this one particular night. She came home that night to a darkened house and panicked when her ride dropped her off in front of Grandma’s home. She thought that the house was empty until she saw a pair of green eyes looking beneath a white plastic shade with just enough pity to know that I was hiding. Momma came upstairs and took me in her arms. “Where is everyone?” she asked but I had no answer. Grandma did not want me-I was a reminder of a way of life she was being forced to leave behind and I got her in trouble. She had moved as close to Telegraph Road as possible but she just couldn’t afford to move onto the other side, which was outside of Detroit, not yet. She was a widow; a woman left alone with wandering souls to keep her company and pay her rent. The neighborhood association president suggested that she sell her house or worse yet, join hands with the Henry Ford president and make bullshit promises and just give up but then what? She was too proud to join in her words “the bottom of the run,” that worked in the auto factories. “Having to share dirty gloves and probably the same bathroom, the same toilet with factory workers? Jesus Christ! Maybe with other Polish factory workers but that’s probably it. Oh, I don’t know if I could!” Said the same woman who dropped food on the ground, picked it back up with her weathered-looking hands, and kissed it up to the sky. Wearing gloves was a part of the changing world, and even people like us had dirty hands anywhere we went. So Grandma stayed home. Momma drove a bus for awhile but then they wanted her to go to certain neighborhoods and she wouldn’t. She stayed home. One night, Momma came home to find Grandma gone and me alone. When she found me in the dark, and Grandma had left me to fend for myself—Momma blamed herself. I was playing a game with them though. I was hiding in the closet and I refused to say anything, not a word until Grandma came looking for me. But she never came. She called my name once from the stairs, called my name twice and asked where Momma kept her secret stash of money. I said nothing back. I wasn’t going to help Grandma out. She called my name a third time and then I heard the door slam. I knew her legs wouldn’t have made it up the stairs without help. I could have gone to her, maybe I should have but I knew that Grandma was sick. She had been that way since before I was born, before Momma was born. I was fine by myself. I just went into Grandma’s room to play dressup. My eyes peeked out into their bedroom through a little hole I made in the wall. Some days I would eat ketchup sandwiches and hide in her closet. Grandma had food but she didn’t always share it. When there was not ketchup and bread to eat, I dug my fingernails into the wall and carved out the word ‘die.’ On the outside of the house, it looked like we were doing all right but we barely belonged in that neighborhood. On days when we couldn’t even afford ketchup, I just ate paper. I did so because I was hungry, I was always hungry, and I wanted to peek at Grandma doing nasty things with that man from Hamtramck. I hid behind that door, any door that hid me from public view. Only went near the window at nighttime when no one could see me. Momma left me alone a lot then. Another time, I saw a dirty glove around that man’s hand and he was shaking it violently against himself with his fist attached to his leg. A black-and-white picture in his hand was of a woman and a man naked, the picture was facing me and I could see their body parts. A part of me felt like crying and the other part of me felt like giggling. I remember
throwing up a little spit into his beat-up leather shoes. Grandma’s boyfriend only wore those shoes when he wore one of his costumes. On that day, everyone dressed up like different people, sometimes animals or even monsters. On that day, I got to eat all the candy in the world and actually belonged to my changing world. Everyone looked kind of funny, even me. I could hide behind my mask and the only thing people could see were my green eyes. They did not know who I was and for that night, I didn’t either. I remained behind the door, eventually falling asleep in there. When I woke, they were in bed. Grandma asked him if he knew where I was. “I don’t know,” he said. Then, she looked towards the closet where I was hiding. A funny little thing happens to my eyes when I am sad. They change colors from green to blue. But Grandma doesn’t care. Oh, yeah, then I remember, she doesn’t see me in that way. I’m not really her granddaughter. Her mouth opened like a complete yawn. Her eyes narrowed and I thought she saw me. I thought I saw her smile turn into a frown. But she licked her lips and went back to knitting. Later, when I left the room, I thought I saw one of her eyes open. That one eye of hers always stayed open. It doesn’t go to sleep. Momma has an eye like that but I don’t. I guess you could say that it skipped a generation. There are a lot of things that Momma has that I don’t. When Momma came home and found me in the darkened house by myself—she said nothing except, “I’m sorry.” She did not even look at me when she said this. Her face scanned the wall up above my head. A light came on in my bedroom and I saw everything in our room was gone. “Where did you put my belongings?” “In a place—a new home with your very own bedroom,” she said. I did not understand. “Momma, why are we moving?” She had sat down in front of the television and cried. I asked her again. She said that it was because she did not understand the world anymore. She wanted us to move far away—she had already crossed so many other lines but this was the most important. We were moving this time but not with Grandma. It was one thing to leave her alone but it wasn’t right for her to leave me alone. That’s what Momma said the day we moved into our new place. I was told to go straight home after school. To sit by myself in an empty apartment with no one around while Momma lost herself for long hours with the dirt she puts on her face dreaming of dead faces and the dirty leftover food she eats at work, food leftover from other people’s plates. She will not have to buy groceries or leave the house again and look for a job. No, sir. Not with that kind of luck. On her off days, I kind of like how she stays home and talks to the wall sometimes. She stays in bed all day talking to family members that don’t exist. Me, I am still required to set two places at the dining room table, one place for me and one for Momma. That was before I met my new bestest friend. I met her on a Tuesday. The very next day, I was staring out the window at this little girl walking home from school with a group of other kids. They were in a big circle—all different ages, sizes. I watched them toss a big, red ball back and forth and then I was outside. I was looking back at the empty
apartment; I was eating a can of sardines with two dirty fingers. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be out but I longed to be outdoors. I saw the children playing a game. They were kicking a ball around. I longed to be one of them, normal. One of the little girls was about my height and was also looking over at me. She noticed the green of my eyes. She tugged on her bracelet and shook it for me. It was also green. Someone called her name and she turned around. I wanted to point to her but a delivery truck sped by, ruining her perfect day with muddy puddle water. I wanted to laugh and hug her at the same time. I found out later that her name was Billie. Each day for me in those days was the same. I was to wake Momma up when the sunlight streamed into her bedroom. She would leave for work a few minutes after that, and I was to go outside and start playing until the other kids came out. The corner store was only a few blocks away, the baseball field was even farther and the park was very far away and that summer, I would be ten years old. By the time school almost started, I was one of the gang but I had to prove myself. I had to be the lookout while they went in and stole candy. When they come out, we headed up there to the park to eat our special treats. I would wait outside, according to Billie. It was easier for everyone but especially for me to remain invisible. A cop car stopped us before we began our journey, us being me, Billie, and the other kids. He stared at me. “What are you doin’ in this neighborhood, little gal?” He asked. Everyone else stopped walking and stared at their shoes. Even the trees along Eight Mile Road and Nine Mile Road will be quiet. We wouldn’t hear anything until we were closer to the city, which started at Eight Mile Road. Billie spoke for the group: “She’s with me. Her mother works with mine.” He nodded his head and continued to stare at me. “Just make sure that she gets home before dark,” he shouted out his car window as his police cruiser turned the corner. Billie gave him the finger to claps and applause from the other children. Despite everyone’s lack of understanding, I was welcome solely because Billie wanted me to be. Once I dressed up in my mother’s clothing: a beautiful, off-white gown made of silk material with creamy-colored buttons, and one of her costume hats with a feather, red lipstick, pearl earrings and high-heeled shoes that gave me the ability to see the sink hiding over the kitchen countertop. I walked out in front of her and she looked at me and said,” Who are you?" It’s me, I said, Abigail. She did not even recognize me. I was dressed up like a woman, a famous nightclub singer that my mother often imitated. Even though that famous singer was black, Momma idolized her. She had always wanted to be a famous actress and a singer but her voice was not strong enough to get people’s attention. In fact, she was invisible. The more I dressed up, the more she began to dress down. Her clothes became mine; I cut them to shreds until they fit. Don’t I look pretty, I said. Momma replied and said I should not be out in the sun and then she said it was a privilege to be able to move out of Detroit. She said that a lot. She also said that I looked like the man that left her and not to make her too angry by talking too damn much. I am quiet after that. Real quiet sometimes. I am a good girl. I took a bath next. The water surrounding my body rippled like waves of dry ice that find me missing. I was still flat-chested but that doesn’t mean that I was in a hurry to escape from my strange and foreign body that longed for comfort. As my body slinked beneath the water, I held my breath and waited. I pulled back up and looked at my hands.
They floated on top of the water but there was not enough space for me to do the same. I was still the same. Water was not magic; nothing changed. I put my clothes back on, and grabbed my knapsack with the only belongings I was allowed to take out of the house: a diary with a lock, a pair of keys, and the map of the city neatly tucked inside. I whispered goodbye to the silky voice Momma fell asleep to; the silky voice that felt tired like heavy stones on my ears. I whispered to the old record player, “I’m going to be famous someday too.” On my way down the stairs from the two-story apartment, I passed a classmate from school. We were the only ones alike for miles around. Only, she had an easier time in the sun because her hair was the color of gold silk, which paled next to my black hair. There was not a trace of Detroit and all its secrets in her. I thought she was just one of them. Even her name, Billie, sounded like something different from what I expect. Billie and I were darker than everyone else but Billie swore she was part-Italian, that Billie was a nickname and no one but me could see the real her. I found out the truth when my mother called my school and asked that I go home with her. She was going to the doctor, my teacher said. They were going to give her a little pill to make her feel better. I was forced to go over to Billie’s place. That’s when I found out that she lived in the same apartment building as me. I didn’t know her that well. I was ignored at school by everyone, including her. But I promised myself that I would wait for her. After school, I was standing, facing my locker; I waited for the other kids to pass so I don’t have to look at them, and she walked up behind me. I think at first that she was a bully coming onto me from behind, trying to push my face into a locker, but instead, she said, “Come on, Abigail. Let’s go.” I followed her for a few paces when she turned around and said, “Follow behind me.” I do as she said. I passed a dying pine tree marked like Jesus. There used to be a time when trees were simply chopped to the ground and no one knew it until when a few years later, the men in hats plant another baby tree to replace the big one. Billie lived on the first floor right down the hallway but the first floor was like going to the second level of Pac-Man. Her face was the spitting image of her mother’s and they lived a far superior life. Even though they had been there for two years, her mother always made it seem like each year would be their last year living in our apartment building. I asked Momma why she can’t be like Billie’s mother with the mink furs, the candy bars as big as my hand, and the pictures of them with a famous black singer. But Momma doesn’t answer me. I noticed in that picture of them with the famous black singer that the singer smiled at Billie like she was just some pretty face, and when Billie smiled back at her like she wasn���t some pretty face, Billie told me, they never saw that singer again. That was the day I received my first lesson on life across Eight Mile Road. Up until that day, I thought there was not such thing as God or the devil. I was wrong. Billie’s mother moonlighted as a lounge singer who lip-synced to famous songs in fancy restaurants in front of strangers and not fans for their supper. That’s where she met Billie’s father. Billie was so lucky that she came out looking like her mother. I think that the little girls that look like their mothers are the luckiest. I looked like no one but myself; I wasn’t lucky at all. We went inside the apartment—everything was pink. Everything in our apartment was not. I asked her, “Are you celebrating the holiday early?” She nodded her head.
There were candies on the table, an old shag carpet, a coffee table with a missing leg, two bean bag chairs, one with a hole in the middle, beads that separate the bedrooms from the rest of the apartment, lava lamps, a broken candle and one portrait of Billie’s mother on the wall. She looked at me and said, “I hate pink. It’s my least favorite color.” I agreed. Billie’s mother would rather have fancy costumes and paint all over her face than decent furniture. Billie turned on the static, blank-screen television then and then turned it off. She walked over to the refrigerator and opened the door. There was nothing inside except an expired can of tuna. Her face tried to hide an empty look but I saw it. Where was the food? She said that her mother didn’t like to go grocery shopping. Billie’s mother felt that make them officially a part of the neighborhood, and they didn’t really want to be here. Every week, her mother claimed that next week they were moving to California to become movie stars and movie stars didn’t go to grocery stores. They ate leftovers from nightclubs, went on dates with strange men to Coney Islands and talked about buying abandoned buildings to help the homeless. There was a brown radio on a table against the wall. A pink, oval-colored mirror hung above it. Billie brushed her long flaxen-colored hair and turned the radio on. A sports announcer was talking about the Tigers winning the World Series and Larry Herndon’s two-run home run in the first game; Billie said that he must have been invoking the spirit of Denny McLain. At least she would learn something better than what she was already doing: getting free Faygos by letting the Persian boys feel her up behind their daddy’s stores. Billie also claimed that her mother met Denny McLain at a nightclub, and that he was gambling in the back. Billie threw a pink fedora around her dirty yellow shirt and red shorts. She put on a white fur pillbox hat, and said, “Don’t I look glamorous like Joan Collins?” I wondered then why Billie wanted to be something that she was not. “I don’t know, maybe.” Billie nodded her head. She looked over at me. “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” I looked in the mirror. There was no one like me so I shook my head no. Billie shrugged her shoulders. She walked into her mother’s bedroom and opened the closet. I followed behind her. Her mother’s closet was filled with fedoras, hatboxes, coffee cups from cities around the world, clothes and boxes of candles. “What are you looking for?” “A map so I can route where I am going on Halloween.” “Where are you going?” “Away from here.” She knocked over a box filled with photographs. They scattered across the floor, and I scrambled to pick them up. I asked her if she was running away. No, she said, she was not running away, she was running toward the city. I asked her why she was running toward a city that people hated. She said that she was going to find her missing father. I had never met my real father. Billie’s mother said that Billie’s father was Persian, sometimes Italian. That story keeps changing. I knew who my father was—someone who didn’t want to be around. I hadn’t lived in the city since the summer and Billie had never lived in Detroit. Her entire life she had been raised to be someone else. A photograph caught my eye. A baby with hair like wool and eyes the color of brown
tea looked back at me. He was smiling as I held the picture up to Billie. “Who is this?” I said. “That’s my baby brother. He’s dead.” Billie had stolen a tube of lipstick from her mother’s top drawer. I grabbed the bottle from her and blotted my lips. My lips were fuller than hers were; I had an easy time putting lipstick on. “How did he die?” I pushed my hips up against hers. I wanted room in the mirror. I looked plain next to Billie. In her closet, I find a bright red wig and a black scarf for around my neck. My cheeks turn red but I’m not mad. “Dora use to lay him on his stomach next to her in bed and one day, he didn’t wake up.” “Who’s Dora?” “My mom.” “Oh. Well. Mine went into the hospital after she fainted and then she didn’t have a baby anymore.” “Was it a boy or a girl?” “I don’t know.” “What would you have wanted it to be?” “A little boy. Not a boy but a girl.” “Why?” “Because boys can grow up and be free. Like my daddy is. He’s out there and doesn’t even know who I am.” “My mama says that as long as I can take care of myself, I’ll be okay.” I heard Billie’s voice fading away. The sun was going down outside. I prayed that her voice would not leave me. She turned on the radio. The Tigers won the World Series. Billie claps; I clap but only for a minute. At school the next day, Billie ignored me again—pretended like I did not exist. I guess I dreamed going over to her apartment. I guess I was an ink spot on the wall. All the other boys and girls were talking about the Tigers. I ate my orange cupcake but that didn’t stop the tears from falling from my eyes. Miss Earl, our teacher said 1984 was the best year ever. But the days were over too soon. Soon I was a forgotten memory. Even Billie looked at me and her eyes only faintly hinted at the secrets between us. I let myself go off and play it safe with her. At lunch, she sneaks a peek-a-boo at me but I roll my eyes. But Billie stuck her tongue out and laughed. I threw dirt at her and stopped looking at me until a few weeks later. She left a note at my locker. I smiled at her in the hallway but she cut it with the slit of her eyes: she hated me at school. It was like Momma sleeping til noon and then leaving at night. I called Grandma and told her I had to walk five miles home in the rain to come home and make supper but some woman told me that her phone wasn’t working right. No one knew except me that Billie actually lived in this place. She told the others that she lived further than the bus went when we all got off the bus. Our friends headed toward the sun or clouds and me and her headed away from it. I think Miss Earl and some of the other teachers knew the truth that Billie lived in the same building as me and that we were the “bastard brats,” or that’s what that dumb ole Rudy Cooter who I called Rudy Cootie Poot. That’s cause he peed in his pants and he play with hisself and he shit in his pants one time and then smeared it on the bathroom wall. Least that’s what Billie said.
Billie liked to put that same paint on her face. She put it on her lips and didn’t even blot. She really looks like her mother then but when I tell her this, she starts to say something then shuts up. I think Billie got secrets that nobody knows, not even me. I know cause I went down to her apartment one time. She wasn’t in school and I was worried. She opened the door, and there were circles under her eyes and her hair was matted. Momma gave me money to go to the store. To buy some dumb old peaches in a can but I went to see Billie first. Momma wouldn’t even give me money for breakfast or lunch. I had to eat the free lunch: peanut better and jelly or bologna, a piece of fruit, leftover sweets from last week and a water-tasting juice. Billie got a little throw-up on the corner of her mouth. She was not taking her allergy medicine and her nose is bleeding again and there is a spoon sticking out from the breast pocket of her overalls. Her eyes are sleepy and yellow. She opens the door and folds her arms. “Your momma is still down?” “Yeah. Where is yours at?” “I don’t know,” Billie said and shrugged her shoulders. She did know but wasn’t telling. Not that mattered—with both of us living in “special housing,” our mommas were not required to work anyway. I was to meet Billie at her apartment after school one day. At least I don’t have to go home to clean up after my mother. I felt slightly used; I was desperate for her friendship. In the cafeteria, I ate alone. They don’t understand you, Momma said. They needed time to feel for you, Momma said. She said that she’d rather I’d be miserable here than there. My routine: Walk home slowly. Leave school first and get there last. Baby steps. When Billie’s hand touched my shoulder, I knew that it was okay to turn around. She gave me a hug. “I missed you,” she said. “You sure have a funny way of showing it,” I replied. “Abby, don’t you see? You haven’t been around long enough to understand.” “We’re the only ones around here. Everyone else that looks like us lives in Detroit.” “You’re the only one besides my mother who knows who I am and I intend to keep it that way. I like my life. I like not having any problems.” “I wish I could be you, Billie but I’m not you nor are you me.” We both walked home in silence. Our shadows crossed over each other like layers of candle flames and I noticed for the first time that my shadow was bigger. I felt older then. Even if we hid in the woods, my green eyes would stand out. Billie was the picture of a postcard like a Botticelli angel wearing a cloth to cover her brown bottom. We were supposed to be a part of the same family but we were in fact, strangers. I realized that no matter how close we had become, Billie and I would never truly be a part of each other’s lives. I reached the inside of her apartment. Everything was still pink. I don’t know why I was here. I walked into the apartment, shut the door and sat down next to Billie. She was crying. Billie was two years older than me but we were in the same grade. Her mother had kept her out of school a few nights before Halloween. Neither one of them was a big fan of school.
I asked her what was wrong. “Dora’s pregnant,” she said, “She’s going to have another baby. This time, she’s keeping it and we might have to move! I don’t want to move!” I understood about sex but not about Billie. My mother barely explained what sex was meant to me. Her answer the same vague one as Grandma’s answer: none. I knew though that they were wrong because of those dirty pictures I found in Momma’s closet. Pictures sometimes of her and strange men. I knew that was part of the reason why we had to move, that and Momma starting to hear the same voices that Grandma did. I understood though how it happened; I was grateful that I was not going to have a baby. I wasn’t ready and I would never be. But Billie was only twelve years old, and the school year had just started. Would her mother let her stay the entire year? Those flashing cameras had even temporarily disappeared and the new face that walked, talked, and even smelled like me came to our school. Of course, those flashing cameras disappeared and it was cold outside, too cold and no one really cared about us. But her last name was Whittaker, and even though she looked nothing like him, rumors began to spread that she was the daughter of the great baseball player Lou Whittaker, which was what brought the cameras in the first place. She even denied those rumors herself but they still persisted. I was glad, though that they weren’t following me around. My life wasn’t nearly as exciting as everyone else and I didn’t have any secrets except that I still wet the bed but only sometimes. The very first time I wet the bed was right when we first moved in with Grandma. Before that, we lived down in a bad neighborhood and I slept on a mattress on the floor. Sometimes, Momma and strange men slept in bed with us. Momma was a dreamer. I was a dreamer. She wanted to be in the pictures just like Billie and her mama. Momma’s problem was that casting directors weren’t looking for her unfixed cleft palate, and the surgery her family was never able to afford, was so ordinary. She thought if she was in the pictures up on the big screen above everyone else strangers would look at her with lights in their eyes. I was the same way. I saw all three of us focus on what was happening to everything around except us. Momma met a man one time. He told her he was a director. He just appeared one day with California license plates. Said that he was going to make her a star. She followed him to his motel room and he made a movie. I never saw it; neither did anyone else except him and his friends. My first recollection the summer of ’83 we were living far from here on the other side of Eight Mile Road in the city in a rundown home completely abandoned. My Grandma could never find us because we moved around so much. We moved around so much I forgot who I was, where I was, what my purpose was: I was in a house by myself. A man came to the door. He was looking for Momma. I didn’t know where she was. I was scared and crying and she was missing and there were fires on the television and I heard the man at the door. He was leaving and I wanted to go so I wouldn’t be all alone. Where was she, fallen angel? Where do the children go when people fight not to be near each other and I was a part of both of them? He was looking for her. She owed him money in a place where money was leaving the city and I had to grab what I could before it was all gone. He told me to come with him. I said no and turned around to run. There was blood on
the walls. Outside, there were worlds that you would only hear about on television and the Tigers lived in a world above everyone else, running through the streets uncaged and unmatched. Everyone else was running away from the city and I was trapped there until she returned. I thought then of my grandmother, who had a gun for anyone that came near her home but was too afraid to leave her home. Later, after we had been living there awhile, I found the attic and a side window through one of the bedrooms where I could lift myself up to the top of the house. I climbed to the top of the roof. I looked down. I wanted to fly away from there. Away from burning buildings and burning babies. The smell of smoke was everywhere. When my grandmother was my age, there was a wall across Eight Mile Road. To keep people like myself out. Away from a mother like mine, that I was afraid wouldn’t come back. The nameless, faceless people who heard me scream at night. When I was on the roof, threatening to jump off, they pointed up at me and walked away. This time when I awoke, there were just two shadows: my shadow and Momma’s. She said that she needed to go out for one last dance. She promised after this one last time that we’d start all over. She’d call the grandmother I had not seen in a year. We’d celebrate the birthday I hadn’t had yet. “Are you leaving again?” I asked her. “I don’t know,” she said. She could not even give an answer; my eyes watched her backside through the curtains. The house was empty and the windows were boarded up except for the one in the attic. She said to keep the door locked, no matter what when she left. I ran upstairs and hid on the mattress on the floor. But then I saw the dead man in the closet. I was so alarmed that I went over to the man and touched him. He felt ice cold. There was a look of distress on his face. Someone should cover him up. Even though I felt a chill running through, I took the one blanket I had and covered him up. He didn’t seem quite so dead now; still, I don’t look at him. That was the first day. The next day, I awoke to hearing loud knocking at the front door. I was scared to leave the room but needed to know who was there. I snuck out of the room, ran across the hallway to the attic door, opened it and ran upstairs. Peeked out the attic window and that same man downstairs, the one who had come earlier, was yelling for me to open the door. But I was not going to. I had run back downstairs and slammed the door and into the closet with the dead man’s body. I closed the door partially and sat down over in the corner and covered my eyes with my hands. My body broke down, refused to move and tears fell down my cheeks. Urine was running down toward the blood from my nose bleeding on the floor, seeping through to the stairs underneath with the footsteps and sounds of rats crawling against the wall. Run past the rats, I told myself but I couldn’t move. I was running around the room and the dead body in the attic. He was a part of the house we moved into. From the dirt on his body, I guess he came from somewhere else. I started to leave him there but then I thought I heard a crash downstairs. I tiptoed out of the room and over to the stairs. Two men were standing in the hallway; they were looking for me. I even heard one of them calling my name. Then, I heard the sound of them on the stairs. I ran back into the room. I found an old dog’s blanket and covered myself with it, despite the fleas. I huddled into a corner, pulling into myself and hugging my knees. My
stomach growled. I tried to stop it, I did but it howled with the imagination of a newborn baby. I paused and held my breath to see if they could hear me. They didn’t. The men were standing outside of the room by the fireplace. I heard one of them begin to urinate on the decaying wood floors and the other one bust out laughing. I tried to stop breathing by covering my mouth. The windows were opened. I was glad for that. But I wanted to gag at the rising body odor and the flea bites all over my body. Never would I do this again, I told myself. If my mother wouldn’t listen to me, I swore to myself that I would run away. But my body refused to move at the moment and the men came into the attic room. Only I heard their voices, both of them booming, falling over me like broken glass pieces in order to stab me with a hot poker. One of them said, “Damn!” at the smell of the dead man’s body. He kicked him; I closed my eyes. Through the covers, very faintly I could see him smelling the man. He told the other man that he was dead. Sweat dripped down from my body onto the attic floor. Their laughter echoed off the walls and into the other room. No one said anything after that for a moment. Finally, one of them said, “What do you think we should do? The girl’s not here but this is.” He was pointing at the dead man’s body. The other one shrugged his shoulders. The first one then said, “Forget it. Let’s just get out of here! I don’t want to be here when they find his body!” Their footsteps left the room. Never really did see what they looked like. A wave of faintness came over me and I knew I was about to pass out. Pulling back the covers, no one was in the room except us. For a few moments, I just sat there and caught my breath. My face, arms and legs had bite marks from the dog blanket. Even in my hair, something was crawling through. I needed to wash my hands. I walked over to the window. The men were standing in the driveway next to a brown 1982 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron. One man had his hand on the car’s roof and the other man was chewing on a piece of grass. I needed to get out of that house but when I walked over to the closet door, I noticed it was locked. I pushed and pulled with all of my might but I couldn’t open the door. It was stuck. Those men must have locked the door from the outside. So I went over to the window and pounded. They didn’t hear me. The bars on the window and the thick glass muffled my sounds. I screamed out. I thought I heard a thump and turned around. A mouse was eating at something on the man’s face. I wanted to throw up at the sight and faint at the same time. But then I thought, when I awake, who will find me? I blamed my mother for this mess, for being on drugs, for not rescuing me. They would have to climb over the dead man’s body to find me. I pulled on his leg and his insides had begun to pour out. I threw up in my hand and wiped the mess against my pant legs. I heard them banging on the closet door. Silence. They didn’t know if I was in that house but that door would not open. I could not really see anything because there was a ripe odor in the closet that made my eyes water and I wanted to lie down inside that closet. Footsteps left the room but there was no sound on the stairs. I waited a few minutes until I finally heard them leaving the house. I climbed over the dead man’s body and almost slipped. In the dark, I tried to find a light but there was none. I went over to the closet door and tried to undo the lock but it would not budge. Tried for the next several hours to open but the door still would not budge. I was stuck. I discovered that night I was bleeding from the skin. I must have cut myself on
something, though what I did not know. I felt tired and sleepy and hungry. The closet was narrow and the dead man’s body smelled. The salty tears run down my cheeks and sting my eyes, making me thirsty. I haven’t eaten in several days and was not sure what to do. I run my fingers along the wall and steadied myself and walked around the closet. I heard the door open downstairs and placed my fingers in my mouth to suckle on them. I heard footsteps in the room just beyond the closet door. I closed my eyes as the door rattled. Finally, the heavy breathing stopped and left the room. I fell asleep that night. The next day, I decided that I wanted out of this room. I did not have anything to pick the lock and neither did the dead man whose body I felt. He did have a wallet with two, one-dollar bills, which I took to buy myself some food. I had stolen the money from his back pocket. I wanted to put the wallet back in his pockets but when I touched the body, it was so cold that I felt a chill. Instead, I placed the wallet next to the body and took a step back and slipped on the dead man’s guts. I searched through his pockets again and I found a Swiss Army knife and a box of matches. I took the box of matches out and lit one by striking it against the wood floor. The swipe of the match quieted the rats in the hall. I cupped the flame in my hand, careful not to drop it. In the distance, I could hear a police siren. I saw a police car pull onto this street. I ran over to the window and rapped it with all my might but it wouldn’t budge and they couldn’t hear me, I was after all in the attic, which was the third floor of the house. I crumpled to the ground and began crying. The tears flowed from my eyes onto the ground. I screamed out loud but no one heard me. I banged on the windows but the two men were gone. I tapped the window with my knife but the glass was old and thick. The dead man still lay there, waiting for me to die along with him. I couldn’t even open the windows. The knife in my hand might able to help me after all. I took it over to the door and began playing with the knob. It rattled around for a few minutes and then finally the head of the knob came off but the door was still locked. Something took over me and I began to scream and lash out in a rage. I took the knife and stabbed the man over and over and over again but he wouldn’t react. He just laid there. By now, the rats had stopped moving in the wall. I stopped after a few moments with the knife still inside the man’s chest. I began to pray to God but He didn’t hear me so I told him to go fuck himself and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and then, something in the air began to laugh. I screamed and it screamed along with me. I took the knife out of the dead man and took a piece of his hair and cut it off. I tossed it in the air and the hair fell into pieces in front of me. The laughter in the air continued though I had stopped. I couldn’t stop the laughter so I started my boisterous yelling along with it. The louder I was, the louder it was and the louder we both were, the more my hair sweated, a mouse came out, I picked it up, it bit me, I threw it against the wall and then I saw rats no more. The laughter became so loud that I began cutting the air with the knife in an effort to try to stop it but I only cut myself. It felt good to cut myself so I began cutting myself all over until I was standing in a pool of blood. I fainted then. The laughter became a quiet guttering sound. It whispered, played, tickled, shouted, sniggled and giggled at me. I lay down next to the dead man. My thumbs were not bleeding; I was told to suck on them to comfort me. I was told to pee in my pants. I was told to chew on my fingers and rub them against the wall, back and forth
until they hurt me. Something told me to knife off a piece of the mouse’s tail. I did what it told me to do: That night, I was cold and the mice were quietly creeping along the wall. I needed to get out of there. The only thing that comforted me was the moonlight and the voice. I told it that I was cold. It said that I always had the matches in my pocket. The body was already dead. We were both almost still. I lit the first match and tossed it on the body. The man’s body blazed with a small orange flicker. But the fire wasn’t big enough so I lit another match and another one and another one until the man’s entire body was afire. It told me to dance around. I started dancing around in the small space that I could. The worst that could happen was that I died with the man’s dead body and I was found here. But with the sound of laughter near me, I didn’t feel so bad anymore. I lit the man’s face and his skin began to burn and then I thought of Momma. Her sad face when they found me, dead as the doorknob rolling around in the bedroom outside this door. Momma. I lit a match just for her and studied the match in my hand. I moved back into the corner and rocked back and forth. My arms around my knees. I didn’t like the smell of the dead man. I didn’t like my smell either. I sucked my thumb. The shirt I had on, one of my favorites, was spotted with blood. The dead man didn’t look familiar to me anymore; strangely, this made me feel safe. It would be another day before I was found sick from the fumes but this would not happen until Momma wondered where I was. That last day I spent in the closet and Momma ended up in the hospital and the police come into the neighborhood only because she begged Grandma. None of them looking for me—they were looking for that dead man, the only person that cared enough to stay by my side. Momma got off drugs and we moved in with Grandma. I watched my life fall apart and Billie’s and my mother’s from the other side of Eight Mile Rd. The night that our lives fell apart started innocently enough. She was sneaking outside of her mother’s apartment to meet boys. We were young; I was tired of people smiling at her and looking the other way at me. “I’m going to be a princess,” she said. That was going to be her costume for the night. I didn’t have anything to wear. I asked my mother for money to buy one and she said that we were transitioning. She said that it was time for me to grow up. I think she was tired of being a monster, having people look at her in a funny way. She just wanted to be normal. She didn’t want me to wear a costume and look different from anyone else. She didn’t want me to eat candy, which I loved. We were the kind of people that didn’t just eat one piece of chocolate. My mother wanted to eat everything slow. She took baby steps when she went walking. Momma threw out the old plastic Christmas tree from last year and bought a small baby plant. I think she loved it more than me. She could start all over again and if it wouldn’t grow, at least she could dump it. I had one day left to find a costume. Momma didn’t have any money and I couldn’t go to my Grandma because we hadn’t spoken to her in a long time. I didn’t know her telephone number and even if I did, I wouldn’t know what to say. Billie took an old cloak and wrapped it around my shoulders. Her fingers felt cold and stiff but her touch was gentle, comforting. “Where are we going?” I asked her.
“Back into the city.” She traced the outline of my lips with black lip liner. “We can’t go there. It’s too far.” “You sound like everyone else. Well, why not? Abigail, won’t you even go shopping past Northland?” Billie said. Northland Mall was on the border. Once you passed it, you were in the city again. Billie looked so pretty. Her tiara was a silver color. She knew how to fix her own hair and makeup. “I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about us. We’re going out tonight and Halloween is not even until tomorrow.” I looked in the mirror. Billie had made me look like her twin. We both looked ridiculous—Two little girls with too much makeup on. “We’re going to meet some boys.” She was always scheming, Billie. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach and I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was not supposed to be doing this. A voice in my head said that I should be at home, waiting for my mother to come home. Most days she was fine but lately, she said the voices were getting stronger. Billie said that I needed to pray for her, pray that they went away before the cops came and took me away. But I wasn’t going to let that happen and if they tried to, I’d let them know that she was my protector. Once, we went to Hudson’s downtown and two boys were leaving out through the same door that Momma and I were trying to get into. We had to pass two boys on the street. She thought they would move out of the way to let us pass; they did not. They bumped against my shoulders; she knew I didn’t like to be touched. There was a look of desperation on her face. She wanted to slap those boys and push me out of the way all at the same time but she was scared to draw attention to herself or to me. See, the police were looking for Momma. She had called them in regards to me but they blamed her for leaving me in that house. But I knew it wasn’t Momma’s fault. I knew it was because she had been on drugs and not been thinking clearly when she went there to screw those two men, with me in the car. Later, she brought me in the drug house to take a nap, but forgot about me. It wasn’t her fault. I don’t know why but I overheard her one time talking about some money she owed those men and how I wasn’t supposed to have found that body and I could identify them. Momma was very scared but she wasn’t strong enough all the time so I had to be strong for the both of us. Billie loved attention. She thrived on it and as we were getting ready to leave the pink apartment, I realized that this was for her and not me. I was the sugar in her tea that dissolved with every touch to her lips. Billie’s mother Dora was working again and I could hear the television coming from my mother’s room; she was resting and was too tired to care where I was going that evening. We walked outside. We walked past windows where families were getting ready to sit down for dinner. My mother didn’t cook so I usually ate sandwiches or brown packages that mysteriously appeared at our front door with huge blocks of cheese or peanut butter. Billie had to wait until her mother came home usually after midnight. Dora bribed the Mexican busboy into her letting her scrape leftover food from other people’s plates and that’s what she brought Billie. I didn’t understand why she didn’t want to cook but Billie said it was for the same reason that they lived in this run-down apartment with Billie starving and her mother wearing fancy costumes and new clothes. No one was supposed to know that she worked as a jazz singer, but I think the real
reason was because she, like my mother, wanted to be like everyone else. My Grandma stayed in the city because she was too proud for handouts like us but being out here was lonely. My mother and Dora didn’t really have any female friends—they barely spoke to each other. Of course, Billie said that they were saving money. Getting ready to move to California. I had on high-heel shoes that were too big underneath my cloak and hand-medown faded, blue print dress. Billie had on a beautiful white dress made of silk with a ribbon around her waist. We had to walk another block before we were on the main road. “Where exactly are we headed?” I asked. I was out of breath, tired and my feet were hurting but Billie said there would be food, good food like steak. “We just have to meet the boys near this liquor store. Then, we are going to a party,” she said. At school, she always had money to buy whatever she wanted. I was ashamed though that the school was paying for my lunch and my mother didn’t make my lunch like the others and we were poor but that was our life. I tried to pull back her arm but she shrugged me off. Her thumb stuck out, she stood by the side of the road with her hand on her hips. An older black man pulled up in a yellow 1980 Ford Falcon Station wagon. He had on black glasses, a hat and an overcoat with gloves and a scarf. He was almost overdressed—it was not that cold outside. “You girls need a lift?” He asked. Billie nodded and climbed into the front seat. I was hesitant. I started to turn around but we had been walking for awhile and I was not familiar with the area. I was tired, my feet hurt, Momma was at home and we didn’t have a telephone. I didn’t have any money on me and I knew Billie would not give me any. I opened the door and climbed in the back. I decided to suck my thumb, hoping that would make the man realize that I was a baby. “So, where you little girls headed?” He asked. Billie turned around and smiled. “We’re on our way to our grandmother’s house.” I turned my head and looked out the window. The houses were getting smaller. “By yourselves? At night? Where is your family?” He was asking too many questions, but we were in the car with him. “Our family is there, where we are headed,” Billie took her hand and started rubbing his thigh. I cringed and felt my face getting hotter. The man took Billie’s hand and placed it back on her lap. There was a chuckle; I could hear his breath getting heavier when he removed her hand. “And what about you in the back?” He looked back at me through the mirror. I was smaller than Billie, hunched down in my seat with a frown on my face. “Same. We’re sisters.” “Sisters, eh? Well, you don’t look alike. You must be the older one.” “Yeah, that’s right, mister,” Billie said. “I think you girls are headed toward trouble,” he said. His words would later turn out to be prophetic. “So, mister, what’s your name?” Billie asked. “Call me Mr. Wolf,” he replied. “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure, young lady, what is it?” “Are you scared to go into Detroit?” he asked.
“No, not all. I live in the city and it’s safe, at least for me, I feel safe.” “It’s not safe outside the city either.” “How so?” “Because I was taken against my will,” Billie said. I thought she knew something about me that I didn’t. “When did this happen? What happened?” “It was a year ago. I was playing hide and go seek with some kids from a different neighborhood when this woman came up to me. She had been watching me from across the street. This woman said to me, ‘It’s after dark. It’s time for you to go home. Where do you live? I’ll take you there,’ I was in the wrong neighborhood, I realized at that moment. It was after dark, and she was going to take me home. I was a few blocks over from where I needed to be at. But she didn’t know that I snuck off the bus with a little girl from the other school, whose mother liked to fix us egg bread from the bakery far away.” “Why did you sneak off the bus?” Mr. Wolf asked. “Because I didn’t want to go home alone. Well, this woman didn’t know that we were friends. She just assumed because I was not a familiar face that I didn’t belong in her neighborhood. This woman found me hiding in her backyard. I was only a few houses down from where I was supposed to be at. We had decided that we could hide anywhere on the block. Most of the houses in that neighborhood were black and white but this house was my favorite color: pink. Then I saw a rose bush in her backyard. I ran over and touched one of them. She looked over at me and she said, ‘I thought all of the maids had gone home for the day. Which maid do you belong to?’ I knew that my mother was not supposed to be working because of the building we were living in but you see we were in the middle. “The middle?” “Yeah, without her working, she couldn’t afford her fancy costumes but we couldn’t really afford to live anyplace else except in the city and Dora wanted to make sure that I spoke a certain way and—” “Who’s Dora?” He asked. “My mother. She wanted me to speak a certain way and receive a certain amount of schooling and she didn’t know what else to do. But I didn’t understand what a maid was. I thought the lady was going to take me away. I thought she found out about what my mother did during the day so I just shook my head no. She looked at me and she asked me if I was from Hamtramck, where the Polish people live. But she was Persian and I wasn’t so she distrusted me.” “How do you know that she was Persian?” he asked. “I heard her speaking Farsi the same way they were speaking it in my old neighborhood.” “What’s Farsi?” I asked from the backseat. I had been looking out at the window at the changing scenery. The houses were getting smaller and looked sadder. I also noticed that we were starting to pass streetlights and I saw more people out walking. I saw an old man slowly crossing Nine Mile Road. He had a tired look on her face. I wanted to offer him a ride but then I remembered that this wasn’t my car so I sat back and said nothing. “It’s their language.” “Oh, really? So she distrusted you?” Mr. Wolf asked, ignoring Billie’s previous statement.
“Yeah because of the way my nose is shaped. People look at me and they don’t know what I am. They don’t know that I’m black. I could be anything from black to white to Persian. Anything. Whatever people want to think. I don’t mind it, though what people of think of me. Abigail says that it’s to my advantage.” “How so?” “Cause I can be a part of any world I want to. I’m part Italian at school. When Dora, my mother has to go to the nightclubs, sometimes I’m part Creole. That makes me seem exotic and it makes her seem like she’s been places. But even here, I can be a ghost of this city. I can be invisible when I want to be.” “Interesting. Go on with your story. Tell me what happened with the woman.” We had reached a red light. He turned around in the backseat to peek at me but I was pretending to be asleep. “She said to me then, ‘You mean you don’t know where your mother is?’ I shook my head no, because saying no felt right. I thought then maybe this woman would leave me alone. No, she asked me for my name. I gave her nothing. She said, ‘Fine, then. I’ll call the police.’ I told her not to. I knew cops meant trouble. I didn’t know them—they weren’t from my neighborhood. I know that I was near Nine Mile Road, I think. Somewhere between the two cities, neither of which was mine. I was smart enough at ten years old to know they were going to take me home and then wonder why Abigail wasn’t there. That’s why we left Chaldean Town and moved out here.” Billie told the story like an old woman with little time left in her life. “Chaldean Town. Why on God’s green earth were you living there for?” I was amazed at Mr. Wolf. He drove the car so calm. I saw the sign that said that we were now leaving our precious city and a sign that said Welcome to Detroit. Billie just shook her head no. The man simply nodded his head. I thought that he must have been a priest. He seemed like he had heard this story before. “Then what?” “She took my hand and looked at the scratches and cuts from the thorny roses. ‘ Well, well. You’ve been in my bushes,’ she said. A sharp sting of her hand across my face sent me into the ground. I looked up at her. Her roses were slowly dying.” “Are you making this up? Someone, not your mother or family or aunt or uncle actually hit you?” This question was directed toward Billie but he was looking straight back at me. I looked out the window at a neon-motel room sign. “Yes and despite my saying no, she forced me into her car.” “Where was her husband? Her family? Surely she had more important things to do.” “No. There was only one car in the driveway. But she said that her husband owned a liquor store in the city and that she was scared for him. It was summertime and their store had been robbed again. She was very angry about that. But I refused to tell her where I lived. I was scared so I kept my mouth shut.” “You’ve got quite an imagination, little girl. Doesn’t she?” Mr. Wolf asked, again looking at me through the rearview mirror. I said nothing. I didn’t know if the story was a fib or not. “Hey, I’m not finished!” Billie snapped her fingers in the man’s face. He looked sideways at her and gave her a long, hard look. “Don’t ever don’t you that again, do you understand? Yeah, let me get you girls where you need to go. To your Grandmother’s house. You’re lucky that I’m a good Samaritan. I should haul your little
butts to jail but I won’t.” “Yeah, cause I’m not finished with the story either.” “Well, finish it, cause we’ll now crossing Eight Mile Road. We are in the city, children.” “She grabbed my hand and told me to get into the car. I told her that she was going to have to make me, so she grabbed me and dragged me over to the car and shoved me in. I tried biting her hand cause I was really scared but she slapped me across the face and pushed me in and locked the door.” “That’s terrible. Just awful,” Mr. Wolf said. We were now in the city. Momma said to be very afraid but I didn’t see what was so different other than I saw a lot more stores now and a lot more cars. “I saw her go in the house and talk on the telephone through the window. She’s arguing with someone on the house, cursing in her language. Finally, she gets off the phone and comes out. She’s still talking but I just ignore her. And we start driving. And she tells me that I don’t belong there. She asks me again where I live but she doesn’t believe me. She says that my kind don’t live over there, as far as she knows. But I don’t say anything. I just keep my mouth shut.” “Go on.” “So I pretend to go to sleep with one eye closed and finally, we reach her husband’s store and—” “Where are we headed?” Mr. Wolf says as we pull up to another stop sign. “That’s what I’m about to tell you,” Billie said, waving her hands around for emphasis. “No, I mean where exactly am I taking you girls?” He asked. We were now heading east on Eight Mile Road. “Just turn right when you get to Woodward. It takes us forever to get to her husband’s liquor store. It’s actually near where we are going. It was near Mack Ave. We arrived at her liquor store and it’s burned down. He’s standing outside with two other guys and two boys, and these two other boys, they are just a little bit older than I am.” “And? Go on!” he said, but it seemed like he was shouting. I cringed. “So she gets out of the car quickly. I stay in the car and the boys are telling her something now. She’s saying something in her language that I cannot understand. She’s shaking her head no. She doesn’t want to hear it. I stay huddled down in my seat but I notice that she’s left the car keys inside the ignition so I think maybe I can drive away. I mean, Dora let me drive with her once but I was sitting in her lap. I take off my seatbelt and climb into the driver’s seat. I tried to turn the ignition but I don’t turn it hard enough and it stutters and they hear me and I try again but—her husband is so fast and he gets that door open before I can lock the door and he knocks me upside the head and calls me stupid.” “Child, what on Earth possessed you to try to start a car?” Mr. Wolf looks over at her. “The same thing that possessed me and Abigail to get into this car with you,” Billie says and turns around and looks at me. She looks older to me now. I notice for the first time that there’s a slight dullness in her eyes I hadn’t noticed before. After that, no one says anything. We head towards Woodward Ave but nothing seems able to stay in my mind. We are going too fast. Mr. Wolf clears his throat several times and adjusts his black-wire rimmed glasses. He
adjusts his collar and pulls his tie a little loose. He fixes his mirror and looks down at Billie staring out the window and me in the backseat, staring straight ahead. Such a long car ride, I think to myself. “I’d like for you to finish your story,” he said quietly. “What else is to tell?” Billie said, continuing to stare outside of the window. “How did it end? Did you get to go home?” “Not right away. They made me go into their store with them. It was destroyed on the inside. They were upset. The woman was talking about leaving. She wanted to move to Dearborn.” “Dearborn, huh? There’s a town you’ll never see me living in!” Mr. Wolf shook his head for emphasis. Dearborn was a suburb of Detroit on the west side. I knew that Grandma had talked of moving there once but we didn’t the money. Dearborn was on the wrong side of Telegraph and Grandma said the houses were too small and more than her budget to handle. So, like Mr. Wolf, she never said anything nice about Dearborn. “They probably moved cause I never saw them again in that neighborhood I like to play in. I never saw them. They disappeared. They took me straight to the police station that night. The woman hated me. She called me the worst kinds of names. She hated me. Her store was destroyed. She accused me then of trying to give her a heart attack. I got mad and I got smart with her and I told her that I didn’t do such a thing. And when I said that, Mr. Wolf, I didn’t even cry in front of her!” Billie said. “Aw, come on now, child. You know better than to get smart with adults, no matter how ignorant they are.” Mr. Wolf said. The last three words he muttered, almost as if he was talking more to himself than us. I noticed that both of their voices had changed. Billie’s voice was huskier, she was more excited easily but I wasn’t frightened. I noticed this as we turned right on Woodward Ave and I was very excited about it. It wasn’t Park Ave. but you didn’t live in Detroit unless you drove on this street. “Yeah, she could have let me go. I was crying on the way to the police station. I begged them not to take me. I kept telling saying, ‘I’ll be good’ but that wasn’t enough. Yep, I spent my first night of summer in jail last year. I hate Detroit!” she said as I looked back at the empty Michigan State Fairgrounds with the wild grass growing in between the concrete and poor people hanging on a string, waiting for a bus that Momma had took once and said was always late. “That’s not all you hate but go on,” Mr. Wolf said, almost in a whisper. “That’s why I’m moving to Chicago and that’s why we’re going out tonight. Dora can’t save up money fast enough. We’re going to Chicago just to get me started and then on to Hollywood,” Billie said. She waved at me through the passenger-side mirror. Billie couldn’t see me and I was glad. I had a frown on my face. “You think Chicago is going to be much better? Not better music, I know that’s for sure. Maybe better food, yeah, maybe. Maybe a better mayor. Lord, knows, we could use a Harold Washington in this town. But you really think, child that Chi-Town is going to be better?” Mr. Wolf glanced at Billie. I was looking out the window at other homeless people, waiting for hours for the bus to come. Some of them didn’t have a choice; they’d wait and wait and wait. Momma said that with Detroit buses, you left early to arrive late and some people were trapped in the city because of this but we got away. Still, looking at them with my face pressed to the
windows, I made funny faces but there was no laughter in return. I thought then that I was missing out on more than just passing faces. We were now cruising through a neighborhood called Highland Park. Momma said in its glory days, when Grandma lived there, it was a great place to live but now it was a place that reminded her of a bird without wings. I remember thinking of the pigeons on Belle Isle Park and asking if we could go down by the Detroit River and feed them but we still lived at home with Grandma then and we were so broke, we couldn’t even afford breadcrumbs. Momma was so desperate to move that even the month-old bread was sacred. She wanted to save our bread for broth for soup and sometimes even wanted to save it to wipe my face with when we couldn’t afford to do laundry. “Yeah, I do, you know why?” Billie said, answering Mr. Wolf’s question, “Because they don’t know me there. This city is too small. Everyone knows everyone. People sit around, waiting for you to do something.” Later on, I found out that every city was too small for Billie. They had already lived in numerous cities. Billie’s arrest was too real for her. It tied her to a city she didn’t belong to. I dreamed then of what it might be like for her to take me with her. I knew Momma would never approve of it. Why couldn’t I have met Billie sooner? We continued driving along Woodward; the quiet streets echoed our silence to each other. We passed the McGregor Library, Victorian-style homes that were being neglected and complimented by childless parks and liquor stores with bars on the windows. Momma said that a disease had wiped out a lot of the trees almost years ago and she couldn’t imagine living in a city where there were no trees for me to climb but I still liked the houses. I could hear music coming from far away but I didn’t recognize the song. I didn’t know what to say. All I knew is that Billie was leaving and I didn’t want her to go. Mr. Wolf occasionally looked in the rearview mirror at me. We were moving toward a destination from which we didn’t know what to expect. The further away we got from Eight Mile, the more my stomach turned. I didn’t know where we were going or how Billie expected us to get home. She neither thought nor cared about those things. I thought then that when I got home, I wanted to save money to buy two goldfish. I didn’t know how Billie made her money but maybe after tonight, I will ask her and one fish I will name Abigail after myself and the other one, the one that’s swimming in the opposite direction, I will name Billie. An even better idea came to me then. I started to call out her name but then I heard her shout out, “Turn here!” We continued driving down Woodward. I didn’t know where we were at but I could see tall buildings in front of me, including the lights of the Fisher Building far off in the distance. The neighborhoods went from showcasing flowers and elderly people on side streets swinging on front porch couches to graffiti, curse words and crumbling wood. The car next to us puttered out black gas. There was a little black girl in there; she was only about three or four years old. She waved to me and I waved back. Her hair was in pigtails and she was sucking her thumb. She was so cute. I wanted to take her home with me. Her mother’s lips moved and for a few seconds, she sat down. Then, her mother rolled her window down and worthless scratch-off tickets went flying in the air. They landed on the cool, wet pavement before a police car, speeding past all of us, ran over them. At this, the little girl appeared again with a pacifier in her mouth. I put my face against the window and made a fish face. She offered me her pacifier through her mother’s two-door car window. I guess her little fingers weren’t strong enough to hold
onto them and it went out the window, bouncing off the car’s hood and landing on a broken sidewalk and melt into the city’s waste. The little girl waved to me one last time as her mother moved into the left lane behind us, waiting to go down some side street. I knew the little girl would probably forget me in all of five minutes. My stomach tightened and chunks of food came up my throat but I managed not to throw up when Mr. Wolf announced that we were at our destination. I didn’t want Billie to see me upset. Billie pointed to a corner and Mr. Wolf pulled over. She told him that this was the end of the ride. He said that he could take us to our grandmother’s house but she shook her head no. I watched them argue back and forth. He insisted that he take us so no one might mistake us for runaways. Billie defiantly shook her head no and he grabbed her arm. What I clearly remember next was him saying, “This ain’t the city of your grandma, girl.” Mr. Wolf shook her for emphasis when he said this “I don’t have a Grandma! I lied. I made the whole thing up. My mother was an orphan,” Billie said and then she reached into her pocket and pulled out a toy gun. “It’s for protection,” she said. Mr. Wolf asked her who was she trying to protect us from? I didn’t understand it either. She hopped out of the car, holding the toy gun. He had a saddened look on his face. Through the glasses and the wrinkles, I thought I saw a tear start to form but then it died like the snowflakes in the winter when I catch them on my tongue. Mr. Wolf nodded his head. I got out of the car. Billie began to walk off, not even thanking him for the ride. I just stood there, waving at him, though he ignored me now too, as he drove off. We were miles away from home and I didn’t want to move. Billie turned around and grabbed me. She said we weren’t far from the Detroit River. I saw a sign that said St. Aubin Street. We continued walking and a strange smell came from the sewers. We turned the corner and we were now walking along a street with buildings half boarded up. Faces that ignore us, already half-gone, already set to move away from here. These faces remind me of Grandma, not really caring who or what they are hurting when they are leaving. No one stops us and asks: What are two little girls doing at nighttime by themselves? Then again, we are dressed up. Billie dressing the part of a grown-little woman and me, a puppet hiding in her shadow. We turned the corner. Whereas before some cars passed now the streets were deserted. Billie and I looked silly, her carrying the toy gun, not even putting it away and me, looking over my shoulder. Thinking that someone was following us, I prayed that Mr. Wolf forgot what Billie did to him and concerned for our safety, followed us until we reached our destination. But I turned around and he was nowhere to be seen; I couldn’t blame him, though, the toy gun in her hand looked real enough to make me nervous and fearful. A group of boys were standing near a bridge. I asked Billie who they were. She said they were the Persian boys. They were older than us, by at least two or three years; all of them dressed up in leather jackets and blue jean pants. I wanted to turn around but I couldn’t call my mother. I whispered to Billie that I was afraid. She looked at me and asked what I was afraid of? I felt uneasy, ready to throw up. Instead, I swallowed and forced myself not to embarrass her or ruin my beautiful costume. One of them, his name was Benny, Billie whispered to me. He walked up to Billie and hugged her and tongue kissed her. She kissed back like a natural and giggled when his hand went down her back and didn’t stop until he pulled her close to him in front of
everyone. I stood there with flush red cheeks. The other boys were staring and whispering. He took Billie over to where his friends were and introduced them to her. His lips and smile had more of her lipstick than she did. Her lips looked messy and I forgot how pretty she looked before. She called me over by the name of Brown Chica; I responded. Billie introduced to me the boys but all of their names were strange and I couldn’t pronounce them and even now, I can’t recall them. Billie told them her name was Abby. I thought it was odd but then I thought she was trying to protect me. Even Benny’s real name was too heavy on my tongue but he didn’t have an accent and he insisted upon being called Benny. Benny tapped Billie on the shoulder and they went through the fence and down the hill. The Persian boys didn’t ask if our names were real and we didn’t either. Instead, they waited until a car passed by and we hopped over the bridge. The train tracks were below but there wasn’t the sound of a train. There hasn’t been a train through here since even before that wall was built. The tracks just went on for miles and miles. I ran down the grassy knoll and stopped in front of the train tracks. They went on for miles and miles. I wished for a kite, to run along with, hoping that a train might come by and connect with the kite and fly away. But then I realized that the bridge was right there and the kite might get stuck under the bridge. Billie and Benny run down the grassy knoll underneath the bridge. The other two boys and I stood there awkwardly for a moment. One of them turned to me and introduced himself. He said his name was Dennis. The other one said his name was Louis. Billie said not to use our real names so I told them that my name was Dora and instantly regretted it. It was the very first thing that came out of my mouth and I couldn’t think of anything. We just stood there but then I began to smell rotten milk. I couldn’t really see what the boys looked like; they both had their faces painted but I do remember their dark hair and I do remember the hair beginning to grow on their hands and the whiskers on their faces. They had more hair on them than me. I may not remember a lot of things but I remember that. One of them tapped me on my shoulder. “So, Doris, do you want to go down the hill with us?” I shook my head no. I wrapped my arms around my chest; my fingers were cold. A car drove in the direction we were not going toward on Orleans St. headed toward the Eastern Market. The number ten bus dropped an elderly woman off on the corner. She was headed toward St. Mary’s or the shitty apartment building next to it. Momma’s slightly sagging face flashed by my eyes; Billie’s voice was inviting us to go down that hill. I looked down. The hill was covered with uncut grass, mounds of dirt and disappearing noise. The garbage had laid there for so long it was a part of the ground. “Why not?” The one called Dennis asked me. “Cause I don’t know you,” I said, putting my hand on my hip and cocking my face but my eyes told everything: Please like me. “Yeah, well, Dianne, if you come down the hill with us, we’ll get to know each other.” That was the second time he had called me by the wrong name but I didn’t correct him. “And just what are we going to do down the hill, Dennis?” “Have some fun,” he said. I hesitated. “Come on, girl. We’re not going to hurt you.” “Okay.” We cut through a small opening in the fence. We headed down the hill towards Billie and the other boy who were already underneath the bridge. She was up against the wall with her legs around them. I knew what they were doing and I wanted to
leave but then I heard cars racing on the streets before, the smell of fire and the sound of screaming. I turned around at first because I thought it was coming from Dennis or Louis. They were both whispering and watching me. Louis kept shaking his head no; I think he was shy. Louis was the cuter of the two of them. He was slightly chubby, a little bit shorter with a sloppy, impish grin. Dennis had a rat face with whiskers and beady eyes. His hair was cut too short around the edges but big on top. His hair couldn’t cover his floppy ears or his buckteeth and he reeked of cheap cologne. The screaming was coming from Billie. I run over to her but I see that she’s not hurt, she’s enjoying herself. Louis walked up to me. He grabbed my wrist. He told me that he had found us a spot. It was further down. I could see a walking trail to the left and train tracks that I ran along but I wasn’t paying attention to what was on the right. Both paths were headed towards redemption and away from me and those boys. Maybe it was too soon for me to grow up and maybe I should walk along that path and keep going and not look back. I should be the one to move to Chicago or New York or some other small-big city instead of the one that I live in. I should be the one who knows where to go to get into trouble. After all, it seemed to follow me. But Louis was pulling me in the opposite direction. I could hear him telling me that there was nothing back there. Billie started laughing. I wanted to tell her to stop. We heard the smash of a car window and the noise dared to drown out my senses. Dennis, who grabbed me around the waist and pushed me ahead. He rested his head under the crook of my arm; he was a tall boy for his age. My head didn’t even reach his chest. They were excited by the noise but I wanted to leave. My arms were numb. I had not been hugged in a long time. Louis turned to me and he said my name. He actually called me by the right name: Dora. I was really Abigail; I wanted to say because Billie was still Billie. She told me to use a fake name but then she gave them my name. I know this was to build herself up because she wants everyone to know who she really was. I really liked him, I wanted to say to Louis, who pinched my cheek but I looked at him and I knew the feeling was temporary. I knew in his culture, he couldn’t marry a girl like me. I wanted to wait for him until I got older. I wanted to take him home and put him in the closet and hide him there until I was older but I knew that would never happen. Dennis was cursing and saying things about what he was going to do to me when we got to that spot. I didn’t want him like I wanted Louis but I know that they were packaged together, and I couldn’t have one without having the other, so I said nothing. We continued along the path until we came to a wet spot beneath a cluster of trees. Louis, who had a backpack on, pulled a blanket out of it and took off his tee shirt to make a pillow for my head. The boys hurriedly took off their clothes. Me, I just stood there, shyly, watching them. I wondered then what Billie was doing but when I looked in her direction, she was too far away. Dennis had his back turned to us; he was peeing in the bushes. Louis was now pulling on my costume, taking off my clothes before I realized what they were doing. I pulled off my costume; we were standing outside in the middle of nowhere. Louis with a big grin on his face and Dennis with a stalk of grass in his mouth, they looked at me desperately and impatiently. With just a tee shirt and panties on, I looked the part of someone hiding for that special evening. They both pulled me down to the ground but I
told them that I needed to potty first. I walked over to the bushes and changed my mind and went around them. I squat on the ground back there, moaning. They thought I was taking a number two but actually, I was puking, throwing up orange juice, and cheese and crackers and peanut butter from school. So many different colors to match the mood of the evening. Some got on my tee shirt and I took it off. Now, I was naked, lame like a stupid squirrel and Louis whistled when I turn slightly to wipe my mouth with my tee shirt and tossed it on the ground. It was worthless to me now. He could see my growing nipples from under my arms. They were reaching up toward the hills that separated us from Detroit. We did not realize then that building were burning and the moon was barely above the water tower. I turned around and saw to the north of us, behind us, the full moon reaching over the freeway off in the distance. I could also hear the sound of 50’s blues music from the janitor that lived in the Victorian-style two-story house next to St. Joe’s Catholic Church, who I saw later on watching us through the bars on the window, with the curtains open and his pants down. We do not know that our parents were not looking for us—they had their own problems. They don’t care that we waited for the day when we would be blamed for the puke and sex and shit and now shirts that we left under the deserted bridge of St. Aubin Street. I wondered then: Did Momma even care that I was surrounded by train tracks that lead nowhere and two boys that wanted to see me naked? I laid down next to them, kissing Louis and ignoring Dennis, who played with my bra and rubbed his rough feet in the dirt and the bristly hair on his legs against me. Louis began moving my hand down there to touch it. It felt funny, a little slimy in my hand. Dennis was now rubbing my back. He softly rubbed my hair as Louis spread my legs open. I started to stop him, to tell him that I had never done this before. In school, I overheard some kids on the playground, looking at a dirty magazine, they were saying that it hurt but it was too late to stop. At first, I didn’t feel anything but then he moved back and realized that I still had my panties on. Louie took them off. Dennis put his thing in my mouth but I gagged, which was funny to him for some reason. Louie then opened my legs again. It felt like someone was pinching me and he told Dennis, no, he asked Dennis if he was supposed to feel anything. Dennis said, of course and playfully called me a doofus. He’s kissed me in my ear with his tongue and I started to tell him that I hadn’t cleaned my ears out in over a week but then Louie entered me again. It really hurt and I cried a lot. Dennis comforted me by rubbing my hair and saying really nasty things in my ear, he said that I had a black hole and he loved the fact that I was letting them into my world. I wanted to tell him that I was just using him to be closer to Louie and I was just using Louie to make him laugh. I could hear now a dog barking across the street. We were on the edge of eternity and hiding from the rest of the world. I didn’t even know how Benny and Dennis and Louie got here but they did, just like we did. We were lucky to rely on the kindness of Mr. Wolf but could Billie have made it here all by herself if I hadn’t been with her? I panicked for a moment when I saw a homeless man pull back the gate and head toward Billie and Benny. I pointed to him but Louie and Dennis wouldn’t look at him. I swore I saw a clear bag of hot dogs in his hands, his face covered with soot; his beastly eyes fixated on our naked
eyes and then I saw him grab a broken tire under a graffiti sign I couldn’t make out. It was too dark but something along the lines of a figure eight or maybe it was a man walking away from me but maybe I was wrong and that was what I felt like writing on the wall. The man finally disappeared into a clump of trees and I was no ghost hunter, so I left him alone. Billie’s heading in our direction; her face was flush with excitement and then when she got closer to us and saw that the three of us were naked and lying around, she said, “What are you doing?” Dennis winked at her with his big, sloppy grinning face. Benny was down at the other end of the bridge, spraying graffiti on the bridge. He was careful not to set the railroad tracks on fire but we could see the blaze from our end. Louie stood up, naked, one hand he politely covered himself up but Dennis just laid there in all his glory. “You wanna join us?” he said and immediately, I was jealous. A woman that lived at St. Mary’s came and stood outside on the bridge. She was smoking a cigarette. She looked down at us in her housecoat and slippers. She looked almost beautiful from a distance. A nun ran up to her quickly, placed her hands on the woman’s shoulders and guided her back inside. I heard her saying that the mass at St. Joe’s was not until tomorrow. But it was the middle of the week. I guess they were watching the news tonight. The woman must go inside because the Devil was out tonight. Billie snapped her fingers back at me. “We found something we want to show you two. Get dressed,” she said. She was also smoking a cigarette. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Her lipstick was all over her face, giving her a Kool-aid smile. I had wanted to take a napkin, like Momma used to, spit on it and wipe her face but then if I did that, she’d be prettier than me and I wanted this tainted image of her to stay in my mind forever. “Look, Billie your eye shadow is smeared. You should take care of that first. You look like a cheap date,” I said and instantly regret it. Dennis and Louie immediately cracked up at this, falling all over the ground, not caring that they were getting their clothes dirty. Louie took a worm and threw it against the tree and the boys laughed that much harder. “I’ll take care of it. You just get dressed,” she said, throwing her cigarette in my direction. Immediately, she took a tissue out of her pocket and began wiping her face but with no mirror, she couldn’t really see what she was doing. By the time she was done, Billie looked like a raccoon. I didn’t say anything; I just let her look that way. “Oh, come on, why does she have to get dressed? Why don’t you join us?” Dennis stood up and went over to Billie. He put his hands on her behind and straddled her against him as he danced a little. “Because we found something, Benny and me and we want everyone to see it,” Billie said, putting her hand on her hip. “Ooh, my shirt is all wet and dirty. Damn,” I said, putting it on and getting leaves all in my hair. I shook some of them off but some of them remain. “What did you find?” Louie asked. He put his shirt quickly on. We see the homeless man in the distance. He was carrying around an empty round barrel. He took debris from all around him and placed it in there to build a fire. The hot dogs were added to two sticks and placed across the fire started to smell really good a few minutes later, despite the man holding the sticks with one hand and looking around, especially at us, with those beastly eyes.
“A surprise,” Billie said but she was distracted. Like the rest of us, her senses and stomach churned for the only pleasant aroma we had enjoyed since coming down here. Louie watched Billie looking at the hot dogs. “I know you are not looking at those hot dogs,” he says. Loud enough for the homeless man to hear us, who was now eating from a can with his bare hands, a woman, where she came from I didn’t know, had joined him and burped loud enough that even Benny stopped painting graffiti to look at her. After a moment, a heavy odor made it way into my nostrils. The garbage smell that disappeared for a while was gone. Benny yelled and pointed. We saw two teenagers, one with a Dr. Doom mask and the other one with Michael Myers mask, down by the homeless man. They were throwing garbage at him. He ignored them until he was knocked upside the head by a stone. His hands shook as the woman growled at them. She shook a stick in their direction and threw a bigger stone, a rock at them. They continued to laugh but took off; I looked at my watch. It wasn’t even midnight. Louie grabbed Billie’s face but she smacked his hand away. “I know that you are not looking at those hot dogs. Billie, those hot dogs are leftovers from the Eastern Market. That bum and his lady probably beg the vendors for their scraps at the end of the night. Personally speaking, if it was me, I wouldn’t give him shit. Nah let him starve. Fuckin’ piece of trash!” I was shocked to hear Louie, the nice one of the two talking like this. Dennis started laughing, Billie grinned and even I chuckled to fit in. With that said, though, Billie replied, “I still haven’t shown you the surprise.” Her hands motioned for us to follow her south, heading in the direction away from the water tower. We crushed the brown leaves beneath our feet as we followed her. I could see a nun looking out at the night sky from the tall, brown building next to us. We had to pass the homeless man and I was scared a little. The homeless man and the crazy lady were now adding marshmallows onto the ends of sticks. He was watching me and shaking his head. Dennis tugged me closer to him. Billie and Louie are in front of me and Benny stopped spray painting and yelled for us to not to leave him behind. Down past the homeless man and the crazy woman was an abandoned car. It was black, the color distinguishable due to fire. A pile next to it was filled with debris, old newspaper clippings, a chunk of wood and car tires. Two black boys were already climbing on top of the car’s hood where the car’s windshield used to be. As we approached the abandoned car, I noticed how the seats were torn up and padded seat bases were almost stripped bare. The two boys had on leather jackets with the sleeves missing and fur hats. One would refer to himself as Davy Crockett and the other one said his name was Sam Houston. They had on jeans with the pant legs cut off and white with black stripe Adidas shoes. The boys told us that they lived in the big apartment building just up the hill near Chestnut St. and St. Aubin. It was one of those high-rises that had long since seen its glory days. “A car? This was the surprise you wanted to show us. Boy, who cares!” Dennis said. “No, that’s not what I wanted to show you. This is what I wanted to show you,” Billie said and pointed to a rusty handgun. It matched the toy gun from her pocket, which she pulled out to compare the two. “What? A gun? Oh, who cares? My uncle has dozens of them,” Benny said. He rolled his brown eyes for emphasis. Dennis and Louie playfully took turns tapping my shoulder and soon all three of us were running around in a circle playing tag.
“No, but look,” Billie said, turning back to look at us for emphasis. She cocked the lever and opened it to reveal four bullets. “Look what?” I said, laughing and chasing after Louie with a stick. Only Benny was standing near her. Sam and Davy were fighting with plastic swords. Both boys had towels draped around them like superheroes. We all heard a loud boom and turned around. The crazy lady was banging pot lids together. That only meant one thing and I looked at my watch to confirm. It was almost midnight. Benny, who was still in front of us, looked back and bumped into Louie, who was running over a tire; Louie fell down and kicked his shoe to help break his fall but he still fell and kicked up a cloud of dirt that rested in the air. “It’s real. Loaded with bullets. I wonder where it came from,” Billie said this, Benny was standing next to her and we had stopped playing to go over to her and look at the gun. She tossed it to Benny; Louie and Dennis ran over to him and were looking at the gun over his shoulders. Even Sam and Davy stopped their sword fighting to come over and see our find. “Does it work?” Benny asked. “I don’t know. I’ll shoot it and I guess we’ll find out,” Billie said. She stood up and walked over to the middle of the hill where there was a clear path between the trees and fired a shot. The gun rang with the intensity of a firecracker and a piercing sound hurt my ears. Everyone agreed that it worked. Then, Louie spoke up. “Hey, does anyone know what time it is? ‘ Cause my brother said he’d meet us up at the top of the bridge at midnight and I don’t want to make him mad. Besides, if we get home too late, then there’s a chance we could run into my dad. He went to a poker game but he’s going to be gettin’ home soon.” “You got a few minutes,” Davy said, looking at his watch. I noticed him for the first time. He was handsome with smooth brown skin, thick, black eyebrows and a pearly white smile. Davy noticed me too and winked at me. I blushed and looked over at Billie, who was watching us with a strange look on her face. This caused me to walk over to Sam, who was cute except for his braces, raspy voice and gangly-looking arms, link my arms through his and head even further south looking for a spot for us to play shooting practice. Dennis, Louie and Benny are in a circle. They were huddled and whispering among themselves. I started to go over to them, to see what they were talking about. I saw Benny turn around and watched the homeless man and the crazy lady. They were sitting next to the fire; both of them sitting on a pile of leaves, his coat wrapped around her shoulders, laughing and sharing jokes. Dennis, Louie and Benny walked back over to Billie and me. Everyone watched the homeless man drink from a bottle of bourbon. Sam and Davy chased each other around and throughout the car. The crazy lady slept on a rotted log; she snored so loudly that the homeless man went up to her and put a marshmallow in her mouth. It stayed there for a few seconds and then landed softly a few feet away from her on the ground. The man then picked it up, put it on another stick and began eating it. Billie came over to me and put her head on my shoulder. The gun was now in her pocket. The boys came over to us then. Louie had found a light green carton with rotted eggs. He threw one at Dennis and it busted all over the back of his shirt. Dennis responded by dropping a stink bomb in Louie’s direction. A foul smell gave me a gagging
sensation and for a minute, I thought I was going to throw up but I didn’t. Benny said, “Billie, hand over the gun.” “What for?” she replied. “Because we want some of his bourbon. Just a little sip.” “Well, what do you need the gun for then?” “’Cause it’s like I said, if he doesn’t just give us the bottle, then you know we’re going to have to use the gun.” “Of course you’re going to have to use the gun. Why would he give you his liquor?” I asked, frowning at him and cocking my head sideways. “I know that, dummy. That’s what the gun is for!” “Hey, Ben! When is your brother coming?” Billie asked. “I don’t know. He should be here. He’s probably still at that party.” “We’re going to look out for him then. As should you too, Benny!” “Just look out for the Grim Reaper. Now, give him the gun,” Louie said. Him and Dennis walked a few feet over to where we were at; Louie cursed when he stepped on something that had a rotten odor. We could smell it too but except for the homeless man’s fire and the moonlight, it was almost too dark to see anything else. “No! I found it and I’m taking it home. Just go over there and talk to him!” “Just give us the gun, Billie. Come on, we promise we won’t hurt him,” Benny said. That last sentence he said loud enough for the man to hear us, who briefly glanced over at us. I thought I saw a slight look of panic over his face but I might have been wrong. “And if I don’t?” Billie said. Sam and Davy were now sitting on the hood of the abandoned car, laughing with their backs to us. “Then you and Abby can find your own ride home. Come on, now! Give it to me! We don’t have that much time left before my brother comes.” Billie reluctantly gave him the gun and I know it was more for my sake than hers. If she had come here alone, she’d probably would have just stayed here with Sam and Davy and then gone into one of their apartments in the morning to call her mother and her mother wouldn’t have cared that she’d been out all night. That was the kind of relationship Billie and Dora had. My mother was too sick to notice that I had been gone a long time but then again, she worked in the evenings and sometimes, I wasn’t even in the apartment when she left for work. When I had left that evening, she could barely see the walls in front of her, let alone my bedroom. She might have called my name a couple of times, seen that I wasn’t going to answer and just given up. I started to say something to Billie but then I heard something again; it was behind me and I was too scared to move. Benny walked over to the homeless man; his fire was almost gone and then it would be complete wilderness down there under the bridge, where the trees and nightlife grow wild and the streets above us, near us, were quiet except for the occasional firecracker or car that goes by. Sam and Davy were now building their own fire on top of a pile of wood. The rest of us were standing around. Cold, dirty, tired and ready to go before we went over the edge like the crazy lady. Benny walked right next to the homeless man. The crazy lady was still snoring. ���Give me your liquor, old man,” Benny said and pulled out the gun. The man gently placed the bottle on the ground and looked at Benny. “Why do you want to bother me? I haven’t done anything to you, have I?” When the
homeless man spoke, he was contemplative, quiet, philosophical. “No but we want to drink it! Come on, do you really think that an old bum like you needs liquor? I can smell the liquor on your breath! It stinks.” “Here,” the old homeless man said, tossing two full liquor bottles on the ground. He nudged the crazy lady, who immediately woke up. He left the barrel of fire blazing and began collecting his belongings: a dirty knapsack, a half-open bottle of bourbon that he took a swig from and a beige cap he placed back on his head. He took a plaid jacket from his knapsack and put it on; the crazy lady put on her sweater. The homeless man pointed up the hill and told her, “Let’s go to our other spot tonight.” She nodded her head and followed him. He turned around once, shook his head in disgust and threw his hands in the direction of Benny, who picked up the two bottles, one tucked under his arm, the other bottle he drank from. Benny came back over to us with a victorious look on his face. He slapped hands with Dennis and Louie. He grabbed Billie and kissed her on her lips. Benny tried to pull me closer to him, his breath smelling like bourbon. Sam asked from the roof of the car how we were going to drink the bourbon without something to go with it. Benny said, “Oh, you got any Faygo to go with it?” Sam shook his head no. Davy then explained that Sam’s refrigerator was always empty and how Sam’s mom couldn’t even afford bread or salad. Everyone was quiet for a moment. Then Sam joked that the night wasn’t over yet. We all laughed even though we were freezing. Sam and Davy went over to the homeless man’s fire. Billie thought it was gross that they picked up his halfempty bag of marshmallows that he had left behind, some used sticks and began cooking them but I guess they were hungry. Benny opened the second bottle and Dennis and Louie took sips off of it. He brought it over to us and Billie immediately took a sip. She handed the bottle to me and I sipped it also. Everyone took turns back and forth until all of us were walking uneven and falling over each other. Billie started flashing the boys and I felt wet down there. I was uneasy; the smell of blood crept up into my nostrils. Dennis handed the bottle back to Benny who finished it off. He grabbed the gun from Billie’s pocket and then touched her down there with it. The other boys, even Sam and Davy laughed at this. Billie looked over at me and rolled her eyes. She shoved him off her. I looked at my watch. It was midnight, officially but no one could have told me what was going to happen next. Part Two It all started off real innocent. The boys picked up scattered pebbles and were throwing them at each other. Billie offered me a piece of gum. We sat down next to a tree, her head against the bark and we blew bubbles, trying to see who could blow the biggest one. Louie cried out and walked off for a minute when he got hit in the eye. The other boys were still playing but then Dennis went to check on Louie and the two of them sat down on the grass. Pretty soon, no one was playing that game anymore. Benny ran to the top of the hill but his brother still wasn’t there yet. Louie told him that his brother had said when he came, he’d honk his horn and we’d hear him. Sam and Davy came over to sit down next to us. They said they were tired but
weren’t ready to go inside yet. Sam’s mom had her boyfriend in there and Sam said he got tired of hearing them in her back bedroom. He also said he hated that the man tried to boss him around. Davy’s situation was a little different. He said he had two brothers, one older, one younger and four sisters, three older and one younger. All of them were living in a house actually but the apartment was actually his eldest sister, who had moved out when she turned sixteen. Now, it was just two of them and he liked having an apartment and not hearing a lot of noise. At the house, even though it had five bedrooms, he liked not having to share a bedroom with anyone. I asked them if they had school tomorrow. They said yes but only Sam was going. Davy said his sister didn’t have to work so when the sun came up, she’d take him out to breakfast and then to the movies. We were all in the same boat, floating down the same current, heading in the same direction. Benny, Dennis and Louie had been drinking way too much. I saw a flash of red coming from up the street. It moved in our direction, slowly driving along the Chestnut Street Bridge. Louie thought it would be funny to shoot at the emergency lights of that cop car. Benny and Dennis stood there, cheering him on as he fired a shot in the air. Sam and Davy took that as their cue to start walking in the other direction. Louie fired another shot, this time hitting the car. The car pulled to a stop and the boys fell out on the ground, laughing. The car door shut. One of them stood on the bridge; he threw his flashlight around, landing on Sam and Davy. With the speaker from his car, the policeman ordered them to stop. I don’t know why those boys took off running like they did. The other policeman went on foot back up St. Aubin to catch them as they were coming up the hill onto the Antietam Avenue Bridge. Louie took the gun and threw it behind him. It landed over by the homeless man’s barrel. I heard it drop with a thud to the ground. Sam made it up the hill before Davy as the other policeman’s flashlight dimmed on him and he took off chasing after him. Davy went back down the hill and hid under the bridge. He took off his mask and his jacket. He stood back far enough that the policeman couldn’t see him. I was the only one whose head was turned in their direction. Everyone else was facing the policeman who was coming down our hill. The sound after laughter was supposed to make everyone smile but the boys were now frozen. I knew that Gary wanted to take off running but this was the spot where his brother was supposed to pick us up. The policeman told us all to move to the center where he could see all of us. We all did except Davy, who stood in the very back and had slowly crept onto the side of the bridge. The other policeman, who was young with a pale, baby face and slick black hair that reminded me of a doo-wop singer I had seen on one of Grandma’s Christmas albums, came back with Sam in handcuffs. The lead policeman had a pockmarked face with light blue eyes, bushy eyebrows and blonde hair. He was crying and I looked at Billie. Her face showed no remorse. I winced, though; I felt bad for him. The other boys also had no expressions on their faces, just straight looks. The police man’s too-bright flashlight waved throughout the hills, the trees, the other bridge in back, though it finally landed on Davy’s face and then on all of us. He took his time with his flashlight, pausing on each one of us. Sometimes, he yelled at us if we tried to look down. The light stayed on our faces until we thought we were going to go blind and then he moved to the next one. This was our punishment; it was
sick and yet, we deserved it. His light finally landed on me. I was standing the closest to the hill; Billie was to the left of me. He whistled for the dark-haired policeman to come over to him. The other policeman pushed Sam into a group of tires. I thought I heard trees rustling behind me. Perhaps Davy got scared and decided to leave? I don’t know. All I know was that the other policeman went running behind us because as he yelled out, he thought he heard something moving in the trees but he came back a minute later, saying it was just a stray dog, looking for food. At least Davy was in the clear now. The flashlight was above my head now so at least I could see. Sam’s crying had whimpered down but he tried to get up to run and fell over. He started wailing, the tears falling down his plump cheeks. Dennis also began crying. Benny was raking his fingers through his curly black hair. Louie stood silently, watching the moonlight and Billie was chewing on a piece of her hair. The light-haired policeman was pointing and whispering at me and I didn’t really know why until he spoke. “I’m assuming that all of you are together, am I correct?” He looked at me when he said this. I nodded my head. “Okay, then. Name?” he asked. “Me?” I said. “Yes, you. Name?” He stared at me and pointed his finger at me. “Dora. That’s my name.” I looked over at Billie and she nodded her head in approval. “Okay, Dora. Where do you live at?” “Across Eight Mile.” “Long way from home. What brings you to this neighborhood?” As he said this, his eyes didn’t take anything. Not in the moon’s glow, the reflection of light coming from the water tower, the faint smell of leftover hot dogs from the Eastern Market, the slight sound of heavy tires on St. Aubin Street or the nuns who I imagined were praying for us as they looked out the window. They were inside; they were the saints watch us sinners out on the most dangerous night of the year. Instead, he saw the leftover garbage that people had thrown down on the hills, the trees and underneath the bridges with the fuck smells, the graffiti and thanks to a stray, dog shit that probably guaranteed we’d never see Davy again. I imagined he must have seen three white boys, one questionable and me. I didn’t know if they were going to put me in the police car as they were surely going to do to Sam or if they were going to let me go. He repeated his question again and I realized that time was up for me. “I’m out getting candy but I seem to have lost my bag.” “Hmm. That’s an interesting response to my question but—” “She’s my cousin and we’re with them,” Billie said. Her eyes blinked slightly, letting me know that she meant to blink at me. She pointed at Benny, who nodded his head yes and Louie, who then licked his thumbs, brushed his slight moustache and gave them a mischievous grin. Dennis had stopped crying, the tears melting into the pimples on his face. “She’s your cousin and you’re with them?” The lead policeman turned back and looked at the dark-haired policeman, who asked us, “Now, I don’t want to insult you girls but I gotta ask: Are the two of you runaways? Drug abusers? Prostitutes?” “What?” Billie asked. “Did you have sex with these boys for money?” he asked again.
“No, of course not!” Billie said defiantly, “You wouldn’t think that about me, would you?” She turned to the light-haired policeman, who shook his head no. “No, we know that you are not and even if you were, you were influenced by her,” the light-haired policeman said, pointing at me. He continued to stare at me. Even walking over and lifting my face so he could look closer at me. He examined me as if I was a specimen. “You have very pretty eyes, young lady. What are you?” he asked. “Persian,” Billie interjected and spoke for me. At this, another firecracker erupted. We couldn’t see it but we heard it. “Persian?” He cocked his head at Billie. They stared at each for a few seconds. I guess he was trying to scare her. I caught the dark-haired policeman looking at me but then a voice began to speak and it was coming from his car. He took Sam back up the hill with them and that was the last I saw of Sam. Billie stared at him until finally, his eyes moved away. “Yes, she’s Persian and so am I,” she said. She was taller than me. Her legs were the same height as mine and I couldn’t figure it out. Was it her hair? Her breasts certainly weren’t bigger than mine, her shoulders no wider. It dawned me on that her tallness was due to her shoes. She could afford better shoes than me. I knew when she said this that the light-haired policeman didn’t believe her but then again, I had seen a girl once whom I thought was my long-lost twin and she turned out to be from India. I imagined that some witch had flown on her broom through the night sky and sprinkled powder on her. Her facial features were not as pronounced as mine, which I was now aware of but whereas Billie was ashamed of them, I was happy with mine, knowing them I wouldn’t have to grow up and buy them as I had heard Momma mention that some of the nightclub singers were starting to do. “Persian, huh? Well, where are your Persian parents at? It’s pretty late for you kids to be out this time of night, don’t you think?” he asked. We all nodded our heads. Benny spoke up, “Yeah, well we were waiting on my brother and we got carried away.” “Yeah, well getting carried away isn’t really a good idea on a school night. Do you know how many buildings are burning right now? In fact, we gotta leave and go patrol the streets cause everyone’s getting carried away. Makes me wish the Tigers hadn’t won the World Series!” the dark-haired policeman spoke, before spitting tobacco on the ground. He had his hands on his hips, ready to pull out his gun if any one of us tried to escape. The light-haired policeman laughed at this. “You kids get on outta here! We don’t ever want to see you around here again. Is that understood?” the dark-haired policeman said. We nodded our heads. He went over to Sam and grabbed him by the collar. Benny went up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. “What?” he said, turning around and almost knocking Benny over onto the ground. Dennis and Louie were walking slowly past them up the hill. Billie and I were behind them. I turned around to see where the light-haired policeman was at. He was staring at me like I was frozen in a painting; it made me a little uncomfortable. Billie went to whisper something in my ear and noticed that I had fallen behind her. She grabbed my hand and stared back at the policeman until he went over to help the other policeman bring Sam up the hill. I knew that Davy was somewhere out there, watching us and I wondered then if he
would come back for Sam. Davy was behind me and I turned around to smile at him. His eyes cut me and told me to not to look at him, I was not welcome. We heard the sound of a car screeching on the pavement and the sound of two voices, both male, slamming a car down. I thought that perhaps they had been drinking. The boys were whooping and hollering until the policeman flashed a light up there. They started shouting down at us, cursing at Benny as we came up the hill. “I do not believe this! What in the hell happened?” the oldest of the two boys said. It was clear that he was Benny’s brother. They both had eyebrows almost growing together and he also had olive skin and brown eyes. “Nothing bad happened. We just ran into a little trouble,” Benny said and shrugged his shoulders. His brother knocked him upside the head. “A little trouble. Then why are there cops around?” his brother asked. “These boys did nothing wrong. They just got carried away,” the light-haired policeman said, pulling up his brown trouser pants over his large belly. Davy froze in fear as he realized that the policeman had come back for his flashlight. “And him?” the boy who was with Benny’s brother said, nodding over at Davy. This particular boy I thought might be related to Dennis. He had smooth skin and a sweet face but his eyes gave everyone a look of distant disgust. “We’re going to take him home. He lives in this neighborhood, so he should especially know better!” the dark-haired policeman replied. “Officer, let him go. Obviously, he was with my brother and his friends. It’s my fault. I should have come sooner. I didn’t mean to be so late.” Benny’s brother looked at Davy with a deep look of concern on his face. “No, we’ve got this under control. We can take him home.” We watched him leave, watched Sam sitting in the patrol car, arms in handcuffs up on the street near the apartment building where the top reached the sky. When Sam was gone, Davy came past us and Billie reached out to touch his shoulder but he smacked it away. “Davy, we’re sorry,” Louie called out. “Sorry?” he turned around. “Sorry for what? That you got him in trouble for something y’all did? Man! I know who shot that gun,” he said and pointed at Benny. “It wasn’t him, man. It was me,” Louie said, almost in a whisper. “Look, I’m sorry for what my brother did. Here, can I offer you some money?” Benny’s brother said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and offered it to Davy, who spat on the ground in front of us. “We don’t need your money! You’re not buying us!” he said, rocking from side to side and walking backward. “Take it anyway,” Benny’s brother said and dropped it on the ground in front of me. Davy produced the gun from inside his pants. He held it in the air before dropping it on the ground. “Take that.” “I guess we’re even then,” Benny’s brother said. “Yeah,” Davy said, nodding his head, “I guess so.” Davy left then, the gun still on the ground in front of him. The cops were going to be back soon and his prints were all over it but he didn’t care. Benny’s brother headed toward the car. He didn’t pick up the money and when Benny did, he told him to leave it. Benny chased after him, shaking his head in confusion and
asking his brother why. “That’s our ticket out of here, that’s why. If we pick up the money, then it means we really didn’t mean it. It means that we are just as full of shit as if he were to pick up the gun. Someday you’ll understand but he called my bluff and I called his bluff. He’s nobody’s fool and neither am I,” Benny’s brother simply said. “So, you’re just going to leave twenty dollars on the ground. That’s crazy!” Dennis said. He went to reach for it. Benny’s friend went over to the ground, picked up the gun and shot it twice, once in the air and once at Dennis, who was standing a few feet from us. Billie jumped back, almost tripping over a rock, almost knocking me over the bridge. “No, what’s crazy is coming into their territory and starting trouble. Maybe these guys are not troublemakers but do you really think that these people are going to appreciate a bunch of white kids coming into a black neighborhood and starting trouble? And on this night of all nights!” Benny said, his hands rubbing his eyes as if he were in a nightmare he couldn’t escape. “Get in the car,” Benny’s brother’s friend spoke. He immediately hopped into the passenger seat of a light-blue 1979 Ford Thunderbird. “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute! Who are they?” Benny’s brother asked, pointing at us. He was driving the wheel and pulled down his visor to fix his hair in the mirror. “We need a ride,” Billie replied, moving forward slightly, “I’m Abby and this is Denise,” she said. I was glad then that she hadn’t forgotten to call us by our code names. The other boys didn’t say anything about our names. Benny opened the door and all of us, Benny and Dennis and Louie and Billie and me hopped into the backseat. Benny’s brother rolled down his window and we could get some air. Billie was sitting on my lap and stuck her head out the window so she could see the street. Louie was literally sitting on Dennis’ lap and Benny was sitting on the other side. Benny’s brother’s friend rolled down his window so Benny could get some air. I couldn’t really see anything except what was in front of me. “I’m Gary,” Benny’s brother said, “its Ghazi but everybody calls me Gary. I’m also his brother.” He adjusted his seat, then cocked his head sideways and pointed at his friend. “Call me Harry,” the other one said. He didn’t turn around; he yawned and stretched his arms. Gary turned on the car and we backed the car up until we were on St. Aubin. He said he was cutting through and not headed back towards Woodward. There were too many cop cars on Woodward Ave. and he didn’t want to risk getting a ticket or going to jail with that many people in his car and none of us, including Gary and Harry had seatbelts on. I heard the sound of a can opening and then something wet being sprayed around in the car. Harry tossed four beers into the backseat. The boys each grabbed one; Billie took a sip of one and then offered it to me. We were headed north. Benny spit out the window and a big piece of his tobacco landed on the grass island that split St. Aubin into two directions: north and south. We were headed north. Harry offered tobacco to each of us but only Billie and Dennis accepted. Billie broke off a small tiny piece and gave it to me. I chewed it, not liking the taste. I spit it out and when no one was looking, I placed it under Harry’s seat. Gary started talking. He told us that he had to go through the side streets due to him not really having
a driver’s license but a learner’s permit. I looked at him through the mirror. He looked like Benny, only he had a slight moustache and acne on his face. He was talking mainly to Harry but he was talking loud enough so that we could hear them. Billie had almost her entire body stuck out the window. Her and Benny both had their heads out the window. Louie was talking with Gary and Harry, and Dennis was asleep, his snoring keeping me awake. We stopped at a red light. Across the street, I could see a woman dragging a little boy that refused to move. She finally picked him, kicking and screaming and shoved him into a backseat. Was he trapped? I thought of that other baby in the backseat of that other car. This baby was a little bit older than the other one, this one was about four years old. He opened the car door and darted in the middle of the street. He was almost killed by a passing car. She grabbed him again and hugged him. I knew then that she was his mother. She held him for a few seconds too long and then slapped him across the face. They hurried back to their car and this time she put him in the front seat next to her. After she buckled him in, she grabbed a heavy phone book from her trunk and placed it on his lap. He frowned as they sped off. We passed a house then that had been firebombed. In fact, it looked like I could see something moving around in there. Outside on the curb were hundreds of their belongings: an old mattress, a microwave with the door-missing, light bulbs with black heads, discarded cartons of potpies, a rocking horse, an old bedpost and a baby doll with no hair. The front door was completely gone. You could see all the way to the back where the fence was partially smashed in. I saw what was moving around in there. It was a stray dog that came out and laid itself down on the porch. Its paws over its head, blocking out the deafening sound of a fire truck not too far away. The sound of the fire truck made Billie and Benny place their bodies back inside the car. Billie sat down on my lap and started wrestling with Louie. I pushed her on to his lap; I couldn’t think straight with them bothering me. I wanted to go inside the house with a hammer that was on top of a pile of garbage and destroy it. I knew it would make me feel good inside to feel the tear of wood collapsing before my eyes. The sound of destruction echoing through my ears, reminding everyone who lived in this neighborhood why they kept their doors locked. Eyes watching me behind living room curtains and through partially open windows, some might even place chairs against their already-locked doors, convinced that might leave me and my sounds out. I wanted to feed that dog. I liked animals. They were so innocent and silent most of the time. I didn’t have any food on me, though and the light changed colors and we sped off into the bright lights coming from the gas stations, the cars, some of them stolen and the streetlights. Billie, who had been trying to blow spit bubbles, took her gum and threw it against some man’s window shield. His car was parked right next to a closed business with apartments up it. I looked up to see if anyone saw her but all of the lights in each one of those apartments were turned off. He probably wouldn’t come down to his car until morning and by then the gum would be stuck there along with Billie’s germs. The wind from outside the car blew my hair into my face and I had to keep tucking it behind my ears to keep it from blinding me. I thought the night was over. After the boys dropped us off at home, I decided I would take a bath. Momma’s already asleep, I thought to myself. Gary and Harry and Louie were arguing about something. Billie was sitting on my lap now and I was braiding her hair.
Louie tapped them both on the shoulder and said, “Gary, we should take them home first. In fact, all of us should go home first.” “Louis, you don’t understand. If we go home now, your dad and my dad and everyone else is going to be really pissed that we’re coming home this late. Do you want that, Louis? Huh, that is what you want?” “No but I’m just saying. We have to take them home and then let’s go to the party.” Benny was no longer sitting out of the window. Benny and Dennis were snoring, their heads touching each other, each resting against the other’s shoulders. “Louis, I don’t think you’re hearing him!” said Harry, “if we go home, we’re going to have to sneak into the house and risk waking up our folks but if we wait until tomorrow and are just there when they wake up, then we can fake like we’ve been there the whole time. They’ll buy our story if we just stick together!” He said this with a red, disgusted face, turning to Louis and I realized that Harry and Louis were brothers. They both had baby faces and Harry had a full moustache. I assumed that he was the one that had probably bought the beer and hadn’t been carded. “What about them?” Louis said, pointing at Billie and me. “They can come with us to the party. I’m sure it’s not the first party they’ve been to, right?” Gary said, adjusting his mirror, looking back at Billie and me. I was still braiding her hair but having a tough time making small braids because her hair was too soft and stringy. I guess she got that from her mom. Billie shook head yes and then turned to me. I did the same, knowing that both of us were too scared to admit anything else. “Yeah, but that’s irrelevant. The issue is we still need to get them home. I need to get home. I’m tired, it’s been a long night and honestly, I don’t feel like going to another party,” Louie said. “Oh, come on! That was the whole point in us picking you guys up. You can’t change your mind. Besides, if we take you home—you know how loud you are! Louie will wake up the entire neighborhood and then what. I can hear them now: Where are they? And Gary, you know what a shitty liar he is,” Harry said. “He wants to go home then I guess we’ll go home. Maybe we can go to the party next year,” Gary said calmly. He gripped the steering wheel and swerved to the side before speeding up to avoid a city bus that had stopped to pick some people up. It moved over; the bus driver changed lanes without looking. “Next year? That’s what you said last year.” “Well, I mean it. We can go to the party next year, can’t we? Harry, do I ever go back on my word? If I say we are going to do something, then we are going to do it,” Gary asked. Harry shook his head yes. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “It means the only reason why I came out tonight was to go to this party. Now, you say we’re going home because the babies can’t hang!” Harry said, turning around and looking at Louie, Billie, who had fallen asleep and me. Billie was snoring lightly. Dennis and Benny were awake and looking through a comic book. “I can hang, just not on a school night. Same as you,” Louie replied back. “Can you believe this guy? He’s the skip king at his school and he wants to talk to me about right from wrong!” Harry replied. He pulled something out from his pocket and lit it, “Anyone want a puff?” From the smell, I knew something was different about the cigarette.
Gary turned down a street I wasn’t familiar with. We couldn’t really see anything. Harry passed it over to Louie, who took a puff and passed it over to Benny. Benny held onto it, took a few puffs and then handed it back to Gary, who held it for a long time. Billie became upset that no one offered her a hit but the guys felt we were too young. Gary adjusted his rearview mirror so he could look closer at Billie and me. He looked over at Billie and me, “Girls, when you think of me, just think of my hero, Gary Danielson. I’m even going to transfer to Divine Child next year like he did. Who knows, maybe I’ll even play football. Course, they haven’t won a state championship in almost ten years but who knows what next year will bring?” he said. “What if you don’t get into Divine Child? I mean, Catholic schools are so expensive. I always wanted to go to Cranbrook but we couldn’t afford it,” Billie asked. “I don’t know. My dad says that if I have to transfer, I got to go to a Catholic school in the area. Maybe I’ll try St. Agatha over in Redford or even Gabriel Richard but not U of D Jesuit. I’ve been there now for a year and that place is a shit hole.” Gary kept puffing and then Benny asked him for it again. Billie pulled on Benny’s arms. Only Dennis was asleep by now. Benny asked Harry if she could take a puff. Harry turned around and looked at Billie with a whimpering look on her face. He rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, whatever.” She took a huge puff but she inhaled too quickly and was coughing all over the place. Billie handed it to me and I took a hit. I looked around. Everyone was pretty much in a daze, especially Gary. We were now on a two-lane street. He didn’t even see it dart out into the middle of the road. The dog, the stupid dog. Gary swerved to miss him and we were now driving down the wrong side of the street. Billie handed the cigarette over to Louie. All the guys were hollering at Gary to drive faster. The streets’ names were a blur; the houses all looked the same. Gary did a running break through a stop sign. My hands felt faint; I could barely see them. Harry pulled out the second case of beer. Him and Gary were drinking in the front seat. Dennis was awake now but he was humming to himself. Benny and Louie were puffing the end of the cigarette. Harry put the window down and Billie climbed up into the front seat, after asking Gary if he could teach her how to drive. She moved up there but they began making out. I shriveled down into my seat. Gary went over a speed bump hard, causing Louie to drop the cigarette on the floor. Louie and Benny told us what happened and Gary started going crazy. The car belonged to someone’s uncle; I can’t remember whom, there were too many people talking all at once. Harry and Gary started arguing because Gary wanted Harry in the backseat and Harry didn’t want to move. Gary pushed Billie until her small body was smothering the steering wheel. Gary asked Billie how old she was. I knew she wasn’t going to say that she was eleven years old and I was a little bit younger. We didn’t look our ages. She said that she was thirteen years old with the all the conviction of a soul singer. Gary nodded his head and hell, even I almost believed her. He started to kiss Billie, she had that kind of face but then he became distracted when Benny and Louie still couldn’t find the cigarette. Dennis asked me to sit up so he could sit down and I was now sitting on his lap. I didn’t know what he was dreaming about but he was too hard underneath me and I felt like I was back in school, trying to sit up straight in a chair that was not made for comfort. Dennis must have sensed this because
he began to massage my back, which kept my stomach from growling and the chunks stayed down my throat. Gary turned around then and was yelling at Benny and Louie to find the damn cigarette before it put a hole or a marking in the carpet on the car’s floor. Billie had never driven before so Harry grabbed the wheel to keep her from hitting that truck, which honked its own horn at us and kept driving but that didn’t stop us from hitting that other car. I remember Harry yelling, “Watch out!” as Billie swerved to miss an ongoing 1981 white with red trim Dodge Ram Pickup with a trailer hitch and bed liner. That truck kept going and everyone started laughing, a little nervously. We didn’t even see the other car turning left from the stop sign. It was like we were playing a game of bumper cars. Billie smacked into the car but the driver lost control of the car and hit a telephone pole. Gary started yelling at Billie to back up and all she did was gun the car forward and hit it twice. We all screamed out but that car was now facing us. A distinguished-looking black woman with fine hair, puckered lips and a thin and sharp nose was slumped over the steering wheel like she was sleeping. A smooth line of blood trickled from her mouth down to tiny dots on her small chest. Another one went from her hairline down her face. It was because of the streetlight that I could see this. We were in the middle of nowhere in Detroit. Abandoned houses with families gone surrounded us; I thought it was funny that there wasn’t a street name but there was a street light. I imagined that there were ghosts in some of these abandoned houses. I could almost hear the sounds of Motown, competing with the hiss of the two car engines competing for my sanity. The laughter was there again. What had I done wrong? I had been there. I had encouraged Billie to puff by smoking along with her. I should have stopped her from getting up there in the front seat to drive. My hands were slightly swollen and my jaw hurt. Dennis had a glazed look on his face. Harry was slumped down in the seat; I couldn’t see his face but smoke was coming from up where he was sitting. Benny and Louie sat there, stunned like me and Gary was screaming and cursing. Gary was the first person out of the car, kicking the tire and pulling out some of his curly hair. We all got out of the car and stood next to him. When Billie saw the woman with the trickle of blood running down her face, she began crying. The little bursts of sobbing coming from her would have been become screams except she put her little hands over her small mouth and forced her body to stop shaking. Harry said that we should open the door to see if the woman was still alive. He went on the other side to the driver’s side of the car and opened the door. He cocked his head at first and was staring at something. Louie asked his older brother what was wrong. Harry told us to wait while he checked to see if she was alive but when he turned her, he said that he couldn’t feel a pulse. He closed the door swiftly and then threw up on the ground. I thought it must have been a combination of death, blood and bad food that he ate that caused his cheeks to shake so violently. Dennis walked over and gave him a handkerchief from his pocket so Harry could wipe his mouth. Billie had calmed down enough to go over to Harry and pat him on his back. Her hands comforted him; he was speaking in gasps and we thought it was the shock of seeing that dead body. However, we couldn’t hear what he had seen. His body shook violently; he kept
mumbling about how he didn’t mean to bring beer and the cigarette. There was another cigarette in his pocket; he threw it into the middle of the field. It didn’t matter though; all of us still reeked of various smells and a sour odor was upon us. Harry was stooped over; the blood on his hands and his nose wouldn’t stop bleeding. Gary and Benny were examining the cars and Louie stood by us, holding hands with Billie. An airplane rode low in the sky, the rumble of its engine shakily pulling it up into the night air. Billie grabbed me and tried to get me to run with her as she chased after it. She took a scarf from her pocket and let the wind carry it away. In the middle of a field with dead bodies surrounding us sinners, she played and danced like a girl. Harry saw her and his mouth hung open. Billie came back towards us, skip jumping all around the car and she reminded me of the Nutcracker Princess. She went up to Harry and blew him a kiss and danced around him on her toes and laughed. Her hair was up in a bun and her eyes twinkled as if she were on a stage and ready for the curtain to come down and he was like an obsessive fan in the audience, ready to come on stage and knock her off her throne. Harry put both hands on her and told her to stop dancing. Gary and Benny continued to ignore us, still whispering and looking at dent marks. Louie and I just stood there, not wanting to interfere but not able to move either. Billie ignored Harry at first. She did a cartwheel on the grass. She began to pretend she was a mime. I thought that perhaps she had dropped her ruby slippers somewhere. She pocked her tongue out at Harry, who responded and screamed at her, “There’s a baby in the car! There’s a baby in the backseat.” A leaf from a tree in the middle of the field started falling. His words and that leaf fell at the same time but the leaf was still floating when I ran over to the car and flung the door open, I looked into the backseat of the car and noticed a baby screaming and crying. The baby’s arms were flailing; its little body was fighting to get out of that car seat and stay alive. Everyone else had run over behind me. Billie actually fainted and Dennis had to hold her up to keep her from falling to the ground. There was one sole streetlight that projected our image onto the world. You couldn’t really see us in the dark; we were standing too far away. I prayed that a cop car or someone else wouldn’t come by. Have mercy on me, what would we say? No one was even thinking clearly enough to try to save the woman, although I assumed that all of us were positive that she was dead. Gary went inside the car and gently turned the baby’s head to make sure that it was okay. He said that the baby’s head was soft but it was fine. Louie went into Gary’s car and pulled out another beer. He jumped on the roof of the car and told the world that Harry had done it, for once Harry had done something that he hadn’t. Dennis told him that he was in the car, so he was just like us but Louie wouldn’t believe it. He came down and told everyone that he was going to start walking back home. Louie didn’t care how long it took him; he just needed to get away from us. Gary and Dennis chased after him; they knocked Louie on the ground and made him stay there until he was calm again. The car door was open; the light was blinking, soon the battery would be dead. I decided to pick up the baby and hold him in my arms. I grabbed his blanket and his pacifier but I left his toy and car seat behind. He stopped crying; I wondered then how my life might have been different if Momma had given me a little brother. Harry came over and kissed the baby on top of his head. I rocked him and put my finger in his mouth for him to suckle on. His tiny hands clutched
against the blanket. I wanted to take him home with me but I knew it was impossible. I knew I might never learn his real name so I gave him a secret one: Gideon. Only the two of us would know this and I smiled at that knowledge. I held onto him as Gary and Dennis came back over to us with Louie. Harry and Billie leaned up against the car, studying the woman’s face with her still eyes and her hands placed gently on her lap. She died looking into Gary’s headlight. They opened the door. Her purse and other contents were on the other side. Harry suggested we go through them to find someone. I don’t know how he expected us to break the news but I supposed we could. Gary spoke then. “We’ve got to get out of here.” He started heading toward the car. “What do you mean, Gary?” Dennis said with a look of confusion on his face as well as the rest of us. “I mean, we’ve got to leave them here. Once we’re a safe distance away, we’ll stop and make an anonymous call from a pay phone but we’ve got to get out of here. I’m not going to stay around to go to jail,” Gary said. “What about the baby? And the mother? We just can’t leave them here,” Dennis replied. “No, he’s right,” Harry said, moving over to where Gary was standing, “If we leave, then at least the baby will be saved. The mother’s already dead. Dead. You got that! You want to go to jail? If we stay here now, they might send us away to a place where no one can protect us.” “Harry’s right. I’m not going to jail. I’m transferring schools next year. I’m not getting sent away over this,” Gary said, sweeping his arms over his head. Harry pulled out two cigarettes and they began smoking. The baby coughed a little in my arms, spitting up a little food. I wiped his mouth with a handkerchief that I had stuffed inside my bra. “So, your solution is just we walk away?” Dennis asked, “Well, I can’t do that.” “Fine! If you want to stay here then so be it but I’m not. Now, who’s with me? Huh?” Gary said. He grabbed a stick on the ground and made a dividing line in the dirt. Harry immediately went over to Gary’s side. Benny, Billie and I stood there, unable to move. “What about them? What about him?” Dennis said, pointing at the baby in my arms. “Look, I say we leave the baby in the car and call the police. It’ll be fine. If that baby survived the car accident, then he’ll be okay.” Harry said. He had his arms folded; he was looking right at me and when he did, we both knew in that instance, that I was not going to just put the baby back into the car and walk away. Louie walked over to us, his red eyes brimmed with tears, “I think he’s right,” he said, “What good is it for us to stay here? We were smoking and drinking. Someone, maybe this woman’s family, might decide to sue us for money and we don’t have that kind of money! Can you imagine what our families would go through if someone decided to come after us? Gary’s right. We made a mistake but it’s not too late…” His voice trailed off. He walked over and joined Gary and Harry. Benny was now down on the ground, on his knees, frowning. Billie and I just stood back. I didn’t know what was going through Billie’s mind but I didn’t know what to say. I knew though that they were going to have to fight me to take this baby from my arms. I wouldn’t let him go unless I had to. Billie came over to me then and asked me for the baby. She wanted him in her arms
but I didn’t like the look on her face so I shook my head no. I blocked out Billie from my eyes until everything went blurry and she disappeared. I saw a shadow of hers walk over to the sole tree on our side of the field. She took a stick from the ground and began carving her initials into the tree. When she was finished, her face turned to me with a look of triumph. Her makeup was peeling; I hadn’t realized until now that she was a bit darker than I imagined. She saw the look on my face and came over and asked me what was wrong. I told her it was after midnight and that maybe we should have went to Grandmother’s house after all. Billie reminded me that she didn’t have a grandmother and then asked me about my grandmother. I shook my head because I didn’t really know where she was at the moment and even if I did, I didn’t know how to get there. I had forgotten the way. Billie frowned at me but I wasn’t looking at her. I was looking at the tree. She asked me for the baby again and again, I wanted to say no but she begged me and I handed him over to her. My arms were pulling down the rest of my body. Billie took him over by the tree and sat down. She picked up a leaf from off the ground and tickled his nose with it. Billie looked down at Gideon. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her so she covered the blanket over his head. He spit up a little bit on her shoulder and a little of his vomit got into her hair. Billie started laughing, which caused Gideon to laugh along with her; she smiled sincerely for the first time that evening. Benny was watching all of this and he stood up. Him and Dennis were the only ones left that hadn’t decide to leave. I knew with Gideon being in Billie’s arms, she wasn’t going to leave him behind. Gary walked over to Benny and tugged on his sleeve. He asked him, “Are you coming with us?” Benny just shrugged his shoulders. Dennis stood there with his arms folded. I knew that they were going to have a very hard time convincing Dennis to leave but Benny sat there and smoked another cigarette and when he was done with that, he pulled a candy bar out of his pocket and began eating it. Dennis could have been offered a million dollars to walk through the jungle and leave but he wouldn’t move. I moved closer to Dennis. It was something about being close to him that made me aware of everything including who was standing next to me. I knew Dennis was strong enough to stand with us but the rest of them were cowards. They wanted to protect their own selves and I realized then, I really was inside Detroit. I was standing in the middle of a field with dandelions, broken tree branches and the smell of fire, an abandoned house burning up the street. I was surprised that we were alone but then again, I knew that the streets were too crowded, everyone wanted a piece of the action and something was going to happen soon. I could smell smoke not too far off and the night sky made us invisible. The streetlights were broken; a house across the street from me had been firebombed with black soot, rotted wood and a crumbling front porch. I thought I saw a black cat come down the stairs and walk towards me, only to disappear when I turn away. Laughter was behind me, over my shoulder. A police siren could be heard in the distance. Billie came over to me with Gideon in her arms and looked at my watch. It was after one o’clock in the morning. She gave him to Dennis to hold onto. Gary cocked his head to the side at the sound of a police siren in the distance and said, “Benny. You know, we’re going to be leaving soon. I’m not staying around here but you’re coming with us. I can’t come home and you’re not there either. I know how you
feel, though. I remember that other girl? What was her name? Angel, that’s it.” “Gary, why are you bringing this up?” Dennis asked. “Why? Because it hurts me that my little brother has chosen not to stand next to me and if I come home without him, my parents and our sisters and the rest of the family is going to wake up tomorrow and ask where he’s at? If he’s not here, then what? I have to explain why my brother didn’t want to come home with me. I have to lie to my parents to protect him?” Gary said, pointing at Benny. “Or you can tell the truth,” Billie said, popping a piece of gum in her mouth and bending down to tie her shoe. Firecrackers or gunshots could be heard off in the distance. I felt like that a magical boy that I had once read about in a story. I imagined I was that magical boy and that I had sprinkled dust on this neighborhood but I thought too soon as a car rattled by. Everyone froze solid as a car rattled by, its broken muffler dragging and scraping the ground. Harry started cursing; he was afraid that the car’s noise would wake someone up and it did. A house about halfway up the street turned on a second-story light and leaned out the window. I prayed that he could not see the two cars collided. I don’t think that person did because they shut their window, the light went off and it never came on again. The car continued up the street and the color returned to Billie’s face. Gary rolled his eyes at her. His nose began to bleed. He wiped the blood with his fingers, not caring how he stained his shirt but he cared how Benny was reacting. Benny, who was not facing us; Benny, who thought he could stare at the ground and all of this would disappear. Gideon’s crying might stop as Dennis put him on the ground to stretch his arms. I went over and sat down next to him to keep an ant from crawling on him. “The truth is Benny’s always had a different kind of preference. Hell, his priorities have always been different from us, then our family! Did you know that Angel thought she was pregnant with Benny’s baby?” Gary asked, looking at me and Billie. Billie and I looked at each other in confusion. Benny walked over to Gideon and picked him up. He held him in his arms with care and not concern like Dennis or even me. I knew that Benny was going to make a great father someday. He ignored us and the baby began to cry. He tried placing his finger in his mouth but Gideon wouldn’t stop crying. Still, Benny never lost his patience. “Yes; my family had a tough time dealing with that one! The thought of my little brother being a father at thirteen years old. Well, I don’t know if Angel was pregnant or not? Was she?” Gary asked, looking up at the sky as if God knew the answer, “We’ll never know. Our dad took care of that but it told us what kind of preferences Benny has. See, Benny’s different. He doesn’t take religion or tradition seriously. Remember that time we went into that pet store and you saw that rabbit. Benny really wanted that rabbit and Mom told him he could look but he couldn’t touch and that’s his problem, he touches things he’s not supposed to do. But that rabbit bit him and the pet store had to destroy him after Dad threatened to sue and all Benny got was a lollipop and a rabies shot. Since then, I’ve had to look out for him and I was the one that went to Dad and made sure Mom never found out about Angel.” “Why are you bringing this up?” Benny asked. Dennis threw a penny from the ground into the street. It spun around and around and landed in the gutter. “I want them to know, Benny. Before you martyr yourself and go with them to the hospital. ‘Cause if you would turn on me, then what? You might decide to do something
crazy like steal the baby and take off. I’ve read your diaries—I know how you think,” said Gary. “You’ve read my diaries? Why?” Benny asked. “Mom was worried about her favorite boy. She was scared and can you blame her? Eight people in our house. They made us share a bedroom and I thought Benny and I had no secrets but I was wrong,” Gary said, pulling out another cigarette and lighting it, “You lied to me. You weren’t sneaking out to see her, you were sneaking out to see her,” he said, pointing at Billie. Louie took Gary’s matches and lit one to cup his hands. He blew out the matches and I made a wish. I closed my eyes and began to spin around. Billie caught my hands and began spinning with me. We laughed and danced in the middle of that field. We were standing in patch of mud and our shoes were getting dirty. I knew Momma would be upset about that, seeing how we didn’t have a lot of money and she valued the importance of making shoes last. “So what?” Benny said. “Benny, you are promised to Sandra, not Billie,” Harry said, folding his arms. “Who’s Sandra?” Billie asked. We had stopped spinning around. I was dizzy, my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. A frown appeared on Billie’s face but I suspected she was more curious than jealous. “Sandra is his cousin,” Louie said matter-of-factly. He dropped the match on the ground and stubbed it with his toe. “Why on Earth would he marry his cousin, that’s gross?” Billie said. She made a gagging noise and I giggled. “Not in our world. It’s not gross, it’s normal,” Benny said. He shook his head as if he understood something now. We were standing on the edge of the world. I recalled then how as a child, when I came to fields like this with Momma, her and I standing on the edge of the curbs, pretending that the street was water and the grass was water and the tiny slab of cement was a standing beam. We’d take turn to see who could make it the farthest without falling off. “If that’s your idea of normal, then pretend like I’m a ghost the next time you come around me,” Billie said. She took some dirt and threw it at Gary. Gary brushed the dirt off his shirt and said, “You see, this is what you’re willing to put up with. All in the name of being right? That’s crazy! That’s fucking crazy!” “So are we, standing out here! I’m tired of being forced to take sides,” I said. I didn’t know where the anger came from but I felt my hands clinching. I wanted to lunge at all of them. I wanted to scream and scream until someone took me home. “I’m with you too, Denise,” Benny said quietly. He came over and handed Gideon to Billie and a twenty-dollar bill to me. “You get that baby safely to a hospital. I know there’s one not too far away, at least I don’t think,” he said. He walked over to Gary’s car and opened the door. Benny sat in the backseat, his head turned away from us, his hood covering his saddened face. He slumped down until it looked like he was dead except for the rise and fall of his chest. I wanted to lay my head down next to him but then I realized I wasn’t Billie. Once again, I envied her. “We’re leaving now, Dennis,” Louie said. The boys began to toss their cigarette butts and slick back their hair with combs and pull up their pants over their rising behinds.
Gideon coughed a little in my arms. The boys headed toward the car. Out of everyone, Dennis was the last person I would have expected to stay with us. The Persian boys kept calling him but he wouldn’t move. He was brave, that Dennis. Standing beside the likes of two crazy girls and a homeless baby. One by one, they stood there, their backs to the moonlight behind them. They climbed into the car, a scrape noise that pierced my eyes as they pulled their car away from the other one and sped off down the street. I couldn’t believe that they were actually leaving us. I ran out into the street after them. Louie stuck his head out the window, the very same seat where I had sat at. He waved at me with a look of guilt on his face. I waved back to them but they kept going. I should have run after them screaming but I did nothing. I was like Billie now; nothing about this evening surprised me anymore and I knew that once Billie and I parted ways with Dennis, we would never see those boys again. *** “Too bad about Gary’s car, huh?” said Billie. It was an awkward thing for her to say but I guess she didn’t know what else to say. She handed Gideon over to me. “It’s not Gary’s car. It’s his uncle, his dad’s brother’s car. I’m sure Gary will come up with a great excuse. He always does,” Dennis replied. It was just the three of us. If there had been any doubt before about whether or not the woman was alive, she was definitely dead now. Dennis held his breath as another fire siren could be heard in the distance. His face told me that he was anxious to leave but what to do with the car and the woman and the baby and Billie and me and the police sirens that all seemed headed in the same direction, his face said nothing. My eyes watched as Dennis turned his body, ready to leave but Billie just stood there. “Come on, Billie. Why are you standing there?” I asked. She was staring at the woman’s car. Dennis asked her what was wrong, but I don’t think she heard us so he asked her again. She turned around. “Look over there,” Billie said. We turned to where she pointed, and we saw smoke rising from a house. Dennis shrugged his shoulders. I didn’t see anything. “The house is on fire. Soon a fire truck will be on its way,” Billie said. “Maybe not. Let’s just go,” I said. I looked down at Gideon. Under the moonlight I could see that he had hazel eyes. They danced across my face like a tap dancer and I started tickling him. He laughed at first but then we heard another siren in the distance. It was very loud, which meant it was close by. He began to cry again, only this time he did not stop. I tried putting my finger inside his mouth but that didn’t do anything. I thought then that maybe he was hungry. My stomach longed for a big, greasy cheeseburger with pickles, onions, and ketchup. I hadn’t had a burger in over a year or two. I wasn’t a big meat eater but I craved one. I knew my stomach pangs would destroy my hunger. I put Gideon over my shoulder and tried patting him down but he still continued to cry. I did everything I knew how to get him to stop crying but he was wailing. I put the pacifier in his mouth but he spit it back out. I picked it off the ground and put it back into my pocket. He felt warm in my arms. Billie came over to Gideon and touched his forehead. His body was sweating to the point that the blanket he was wrapped around was drenched. Gideon’s cheeks were flushed and his breath was coming out in heavy puffs. I kept trying to rock him back and forth but his little body kept getting weaker and weaker. I brought him over to Dennis and Billie and showed them how sweaty and red he was. His eyes rolled back into his head.
“I think there’s a hospital not too far from here,” Dennis said, pointing and he started walking. Billie ran over to the car and opened it. She reached inside the dead woman’s purse and was fumbling around in there for a few moments. She pulled out a wad of cash and flashed it at us. “What’s that for?” Dennis asked as she stuffed it into her bra and we started walking. “In case we need to take a taxi home or something. What do you think we should do when we get to the hospital?” Billie asked, rolling her eyes at him. I switched Gideon in my arms but I knew that we were going to switch him off or maybe Dennis could just carry him. That Dennis was developing stubby hair on his muscular legs and a moustache on his face that looked like peach fuzz. I was staring at him a bit harder than I should have and Billie came around beside me. She waved her hand in front of my face and laughed. He ignored this and continued. “Take him inside. What else?” Dennis replied. “No, I mean, we take him inside and just give him to the nurse? Then what? We just walk off?!” Billie screamed. “Look, I’ll take him inside and put him in one of the chairs and then at least he’ll be there. Then, we leave. If we stay around, they’re going to ask questions.” He nodded his head and smiled at me. I smiled back at him but an uneasy feeling was inside of my stomach. He went to try to pat Gideon on his head but I blocked him. He was taken aback and I spoke before he could say anything else. “What about his mother?” I asked. We were now a block away. The car was sitting under that tree. I pictured in my mind her face slumped against that steering wheel. Her bosom was just small enough not to break the sound of the horn; the last image in her mind was our bright lights. Her face was probably turned so she could check on her son. Did she know that she was about to die? “When we’re far from here, I think then we should call,” Billie said. She said it more as a statement than a question. Dennis nodded his head and I knew that I had been outvoted. I know this was strange but I wanted to go back there and sit and talk with her. I wanted to say I was sorry for what we did, but she was dead. Everyone was looking ahead; the house on the corner to my left had a boy staring out the window. He was about our age. There was a party of grownups all around him but he was out on that third-story porch. The entire house was lit up by candles and carved pumpkins with lights inside them. He was a plain boy, not dressed up like everyone. This made me think he was being punished in some way. I knew he could see us walking past him. A group of older boys rushed him then, almost knocking him over the rail and into the backyard below. I stopped; Dennis and Billie continued walking, they were having a conversation about Punky Brewster and they didn’t even know that I had stopped walking with them. I knew I needed to move forward for the baby’s sake; I didn’t know what was wrong with him, but he was sleeping, and his body felt warm in mine. This boy, though, I wanted to make sure that was alright. Those boys didn’t knock him over; they took something from him and continued back inside. He stood out there; the boys made their way downstairs and into the backyard. One of them unraveled the package and then I saw matches and another garbage can full of fire. I realized then that I hated the smell of fire; I would come to recognize it was a warning that my life was about to go in a downward turn. The smoke traveled up to the third-story where the boy was at. He simply waved it
from his face. I wish I could have seen that face, seen that expression. His quietness had an aura of sadness that traveled over to me and weighed me down. I longed to go over to him and hug him. Instead, I held onto the baby, pushing him into my chest. I was transfixed by him. I couldn’t see his face but I could tell in the dark that he was looking at me. He was not looking at those boys, now waving a small blanket toward the fire, causing the smoke to rise in the air. Some of them were running around the yard, trying to find whatever they could to put in, slightly threatened by this. Those boys could have easily come towards us to bother us and the baby. They ignored us though and began throwing things up at the balcony where he stood. I called out to him to look out and tried to warn him that those boys over there were throwing things at him but he ignored me and turned his back at me. I shouted to him that I was just trying to help but he ignored me. The next thing I knew, Billie was standing next to me. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I’m trying to get his attention,” I said, pointing to the boy on the balcony. He was watching us now. I knew that it was Billie’s frayed but sparkly costume that had gotten his attention. He couldn’t see the mud tracks or the smeared makeup on her face. “Why, Abby, why? He’s not like us?” Billie asked. “Maybe he could help us. We could use a telephone… “ my voice trailed off. “Did you hear me?!” she said, loud enough that Dennis stopped in his tracks. He rolled his eyes at us and squished a worm crawling on the ground. “They’re not like us, Abby. Dora says people who live in the city get jealous of people who can afford to leave. Look at him. He doesn’t like us. Hell, he doesn’t even look like us, or least not me.” “You don’t even know him!” I said. I smiled up at him but I knew he couldn’t see me. He flicked a cigarette on the ground and by the way he cocked his head to the side, I knew that he wasn’t listening to us. He was paying attention to something going on inside that house. “Oh and you do? Billie, those boys made us take sides. Now, are you turning on me? Cause if you are, then you explain to his parents why there’s a baby in your arms!” I nodded my head. She pointed in the direction of Dennis and started walking. I wasn’t moving and after Billie had gotten a block away from me, she started whispering something but I suppose she was whispering to me and noticed that I wasn’t there. She came running up the block and began pulling on my arm. The black boys across the street were calling us names. Telling us what happens to black and white girls who come across Eight Mile Road to fuck with them in their neighborhood and throw down. Billie started throwing gang signals back. I didn’t know where she learned them. She was laughing and splitting on the ground, their ground in front of them. She took her gum and threw it at them. One of them was so angry that he came out in the middle of the street. He was like a wild man, throwing his hands in the air. I didn’t know if he was going to come over to us and slap Billie or if he was going to start break dancing, something that I had heard city kids liked to do. Billie told me to look out but I heard the faint putter of what looked like in the distance an old army truck. It was actually just an old truck. I watched it turn up the very street where that car was at but it didn’t stop. The cool, liquid of the boy’s penis landed on the grass near our feet. He was trying to spray us. Billie took a rock and threw it at
him as he turned his back on us. She motioned for me to start running but I hesitated as the rock hit him on the back of the head. I hesitated when a grown woman came outside. She asked them what they were doing. They were screaming at us: Oreo, 313, Eastside and We Ain’t Bullshittin’. Billie shouted, “Westside!” back at them. I didn’t know where the Westside was and I didn’t know she was lying to them and I suspect she didn’t either. Billie whistled at them. She pulled down her pants and then flashed them. They whistled happily in response; she bowed and blew them a kiss. They began taunting me to do the same thing. I responded to this by giving them the finger. Those boys began booing me; their brown bodies like little fire ants, throwing tiny little pebbles and even clumps of grass in my direction. None of them came close but I sped up then to keep up with Billie and Dennis. We continued walking along; I heard the sound of a siren behind us. It was getting louder and louder. I was afraid then of what might happen if the police came after us. Perhaps that boy, in his mighty vision, had seen everything that we had done. Maybe he had seen us hitting that woman’s car and stealing her baby and money and leaving her dead body to rot until someone found her. That boy would be the hero, having saved the poor black woman from the rotten kids who couldn’t even agree on what to do about her. But that didn’t make sense to me. I wished that Benny or Gary but especially Gary had stopped at a payphone and made an anonymous phone call but I didn’t even know where we were at. All I knew is that it was dark, outside, cold, I was holding a halfbreathing baby and my best friend in all of this, Billie was the girl I no longer wanted to be even it meant I couldn’t pass out in the suburbs. The police siren became so loud that Dennis pulled us into an alley. I could see the flash of red wave past me, heading in another direction. I cursed myself then for even going inside the car. Why hadn’t I remembered what that cop that had come to our school said? How fingerprints were used to track criminals and keep track of kids? We were dumb. I checked on Gideon; he was taking his time with his breathing, which was hard to follow but it was for the time being. “Do you think they’ll stop when they get to the woman’s car?” Dennis said, his hand forcing us against the brick wall as the siren headed in the opposite direction. He peeked around the corner, cupping his eyes to see if the police were stopping. They weren’t. I could see them in my mind, their flashlights hiding shocked looks on their faces when they saw the woman, left alone with a trickle of blood running down her face. Dennis answered his own question before Billie and I could nod our heads. “Yeah, they probably will. Wait here for me, okay? I’ll be right back,” he said. He walked around a corner. I guess to see where everyone else was at. He was gone for several minutes and we just stood there. I breathed in but I made sure that I could not hear myself. I didn’t need to look at Billie to know she was probably scared too. We were not scared of the police finding the car and the woman. We were scared of them finding that car seat and no baby. Questions that would lead them to the woman’s house and to her family, who would tell them that the baby should have been with her. She was no longer his mother though. I wondered though if Momma would let us keep him. Probably not. He could not pass as my little brother, there would be too many questions. Then again, I couldn’t really, not like Billie but more so than this baby would be able to. I hugged Gideon tighter. Billie slid down to the ground, not caring what happened to
us one way or the other. I stood there, hugging the baby. I braced myself as I heard the sound of soft crunches against the leaves falling from the tree. Wind chimes from the side door of the house next to us whistled gently in the thin night air. Billie’s eyes stayed open; her pretty eyes following the shadows of those footsteps up the driveway towards us. I was ready to scream but the dark, shadowy figure appeared and it was Dennis. He was not shaken and said that he could see in the distance where the police had found the abandoned car. He motioned for us to follow him and we did. My legs were feeling stiff for some reason; I guess maybe I was just tired of running. I asked Billie to put Gideon in my arms. He started crying when I took him out of Billie’s hands so I put the pacifier in his mouth and he quieted down enough to go to sleep. We were now a block east of the main street that we needed to follow to take us to the hospital. A flash of lights could be seen going in that same direction. I heard Billie softly murmur, “What will happen to us when they discover Gary’s car?” Dennis replied, “It was stolen. Nothing, I think.” He pointed in the direction of the hospital. We started to walk toward the main street but Dennis stopped us when he saw that the main street was cut off. He told us to wait where we were, against the side of this house while he snuck up to the corner to see what was going on. Dennis came back a few moments later and said that the police were talking to those boys that Billie and I had almost thrown down with. I cringed at the thought of them, including that boy standing on the third-floor balcony telling them which direction we had gone in. Was I right or was I just being paranoid? Dennis said that he didn’t want to go through the main streets but wanted to hop over fences and cut through backyards. He asked us if we had ever hopped over fences before or cut through backyards we weren’t supposed to. Billie said yeah like it was natural but I hadn’t. At Grandma’s house, there were no fences in her yard; I just knew what my boundaries were and at the apartment, there were no fences. Just shrubs around the building. He said that he would go first over the first fence, which was right behind us. Then myself and Gideon and finally Billie. Dennis wanted to make sure that I went between them so they could help me over the fence. We heard a police siren and ran into the backyard of the house we were standing next to. The flash of lights prevented us from moving beyond the garage we were standing next to. The police car continued up the street but we could still see the lights. He opened the gate and peered into the backyard. It was a small space with slightly yellow-colored grass and a stack of firewood next to the empty garbage cans. I was surprised at this, seeing at how many weeds were growing between the cracks in that driveway. The bricks were crumbling and the house was a shaded cream color. I was surprised, though at how well the backyard looked. One wood fence was on top of a metal, gated fence. Over in the corner was a tiny, white umbrella and chair set. We saw the flash of lights coming back towards us and we ran into the backyard and closed the door. It seemed like no matter where we moved to, we could see them. Dennis then hopped over the fence first. It was easy for him with sneakers on. He scratched his hand but he didn’t mind. I tried following him but I missed a step when my shoe wouldn’t easily fit into one of the small wire holes and I came crashing back down. I scraped my hand but it didn’t bleed. This time, Billie, who was holding Gideon put on the ground and put her hands on me. She pushed me over the fence and Dennis pulled me down into his arms. We were in another backyard. This one without a fence on the
other side. There was a porch light on. The flowers were wilted and a smell of egg shells came into my nose. Dennis snapped his fingers in front of my face. I climbed on the fence to reach and grab Gideon. Billie handed me to him and I realized that I was going to need help. I turned to him and he bent over. I climbed on top of his back and reached for the baby again. He grunted slightly as the weight of my body almost pushed him down. I knew that one wrong step on his back would send me flying off, so I was careful. After Billie handed me the baby, I stepped off Dennis’ back. Billie lifted herself up in the air and climbed over. She looked around; though only me and Dennis were standing near her. The porch light went off by itself and we all froze for a moment. We thought that someone had seen us but then the light came on again and we continued on our journey. I didn’t know what to think about the next street; all of the houses looked like sad, empty faces. Or maybe someone was inside of them and they were just hiding. We saw the headlights of a police car, flashing, heading in our direction. Dennis pointed to an empty shed sitting right side a two-story home. The shed, we could see from an opening in the wood fence. He started running and Billie and me followed behind him. He was peeking up over the top of the fence and I was holding Gideon. I heard a strange growl behind me coming from down below. I knew it wasn’t the baby who was asleep, sucking on the pacifier I put in his mouth. I turned around the same time as Billie. The dog had a sleek black coat with brown patches on its face. He came up to my stomach and I put Gideon on my shoulders to protect him but that didn’t stop him from snarling at us. He lunged for Gideon’s blanket and I screamed. The pacifier fell to the ground but I couldn’t think straight so I left it. Dennis kicked the dog, which took his attention away from us. Dennis grabbed a stick and yelled at us to start running. I pushed open the gate with one hand and Billie ran out behind me. She shut the gate just in time as the dog’s massive body thumped against it. We heard a cry from Dennis and a scream. He was cursing in his language and then a garbage can was knocked over, which caused a back porch light to come on. Billie and I ran up the driveway and we saw a police car up the street to the right, heading toward the scene of the car accident. Billie said for us to start running left, so we did. I heard someone shouting but I still ran. I almost tripped on the sidewalk so I ran out into the street and Billie came after me. We could hear another police car heading in our direction so we ran over and hid next to this van. It looked yellow from a distance but it was actually green. When we got close on it, I saw the word F O R D in silver letters across the back. On one side were the words Ecoline and the other side SuperVan. Judging by the rusted top, it was at least ten years old, if not more. For no earthly reason that Billie and I could presume, she yanked on the van’s backdoor and it was open. Inside were paint brushes, white buckets, drop cloths, rollers, a sprayer and a small ladder. Yet there was room in the van for us. There was also a big giant tarp that was held up towards the front by small ladders that we hid under and prevented anyone who might climb into the van from seeing us. I peeked down at Gideon. He was oddly quiet and felt a little cold. I bent my head down and turned my ear so I could hear him. Very faintly, his breath erupted me in the sense that he was still okay for that, I was grateful. Billie was slightly out-of-breath but I knew it was because she was scared and didn’t want to move. What were we doing there?
Up the street, we could see a black man in a red robe standing next to the police car. He had Dennis in one hand and a baseball bat in the other. They were walking up the street. We could see them partially through the filmy cover over the back window. I could hear Dennis calling our names, even the baby’s. He was softly crying. I reached for the door handle but Billie grabbed my arm. The man continued walking until I noticed that his robe was red and brown and that his pants were silk and light blue. His slippers matched his robe and he had a mustache with beady eyes and an angular face. Dennis’ nose was bleeding; he walked with a slight lump and his eyes were glazed. I thought my eyes connected with him for a moment until Billie pushed me gently away from the window. We stood still and I prayed that Gideon would not start crying but he continued sleeping. Billie peeked through the back window again and saw them putting Dennis into a police car. We didn’t dare move. The man was pointing in our direction but not at us; they couldn’t see us. He probably had heard Billie or me screaming and I knew that the police were probably looking for us. I knew because I had dropped the pacifier and the policeman, Dennis and the man were walking up the street. Billie ducked back and we sat very still. At one point, I wanted to get up from my spot, my legs were cramped and I wanted to stretch them but Billie told me not to move. She was afraid I might rock the van and someone might get suspicious. So, we sat there and did nothing. Gideon was still sleeping quietly and Billie was bored, so she took some chewing gum out of her pocket and started blowing bubbles, making silly faces and tearing off pieces of her gum to throw up on the van’s ceiling. It seemed everywhere we went, Billie had to leave a mark behind. Finally, after a long time, Billie decided to peek out to see if the cop car was still there. It was gone, along with Dennis and the man. I asked her what was going to happen to Dennis. She said that he would definitely be taken home, punished. Will he rat on us? I asked. Of course, she replied, he’s going to tell but he won’t find us. He doesn’t even know our last names. Billie and I never gave our real names. Billie told me that Dennis and the others didn’t really know where she lived at. She suggested then that she climb through the front and get out on the passenger side and check to make sure that there was no one out there looking for us before we continued on our way to the hospital but before we did, there was a huge crash on top of the van. Billie’s hand stifled the scream that came out from my mouth. Something was weighing down heavily on top. Her hand felt sweaty and heavy. Billie left her hand on my mouth long enough to cover a second near scream when the driver’s side front door opened. A man opened the door; I could tell that he was male by the sound of his breathing. It was heavy, layered almost as if he was wheezing. He began throwing soft objects into the back. He tossed them with the air of inconvenience. Some of them bounced off and landed on top of the tarp. A paintbrush clattered onto the van’s floor with a dull thud. He climbed in and shut the door. I decided that I had enough of this. I wanted to go home. I reached for the backdoor to open it but Billie slapped my hand away. She gave me a look like she would kill me and I knew she would so I backed down from trying to open the door but I was scared. I didn’t know what we were going to do. We could hear the man now up in the front seat. He couldn’t see us, though—The tarp protected us. He was biting down on something and
chewing really loudly. We could also hear the sound of papers being shuffled around a country music station playing. Then, he rolled down his window and the faint smell of cigarette smoke eased near me. I looked over at Billie. Her eyes were squinting as if she couldn’t figure something out. The man tossed the apple core in the back. It rolled off the tarp and landed near me. I could see saliva juice on it and I wanted to gag but I didn’t. He brushed his hands and turned the music up louder. Gideon’s body raised in the air like he was going to start crying but then his body fell again. I looked over at Billie, who carefully shrugged her shoulders. The man started up the van. I smelled smoke but wasn’t sure where it came from. The van shook a little and rattled. He burped loudly, and Billie covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. I should have told Billie to make a run for it but I was too scared to move. What if Billie hesitated or if I made it out and she didn’t? No, we had to stick together. We didn’t know where we were going. The van drove a block before the sound of sirens threatened to keep us from leaving. Billie had whispered to me when the van got on the main road, when we were a safe distance away that we should just jump out of the van but that would cause too much noise. I didn’t think either one of us had enough strength to push that door open without the man hearing first. But we tried anyway and the door was stuck. It was locked from the inside. Besides, I had the baby in my arms and I didn’t want to hurt him. When I said this, Billie looked down at him with slits in her eyes. I think she was beginning to get a little frustrated and I knew we were going to have to leave baby somewhere else. I was getting real tired. I wanted not to be scared anymore. Momma was sick and had the week off and I wished I was at home, lying next to her, stroking her hair with a brush and feeding her cool water to drink but I was not there. I was not even near Grandma, who couldn’t stand me. I was sitting in a strange man’s van across from a girl, who I considered to be my bestest friend and yet, I didn’t really know her either. Nor did I know the baby who was holding onto me for dear life. On the floor of the van was a broken mirror. It was shattered in pieces but you could still get a reflection from it. The circles under my eyes weighed down my cheeks; I needed something to eat to get rid of this sickly look. My lips were chapped and dry. I licked them but they were still dry. I had sleep in my eyes and I didn’t like the slight dullness in them so I put the mirror down. Billie immediately picked it up and began licking her fingers and smoothing her hair. She took a napkin out of her pocket and wiped the sides of her mouth. She was making funny faces at the mirror and I grinned slightly. Gideon continued to worry me. He had gotten darker and now his cheeks were beginning to turn a reddish color. The man up front pulled over, but to where and what I didn’t know. He turned off the engine and I heard him rolling down the window. “Ah, damn it,” I heard him say and then he was brushing his hands. I didn’t know if I poked my head from underneath the tarp, if he would be able to see me so I didn’t move. Billie’s face froze though when the flash of red lights suddenly erupted over our heads. I knew they were going to find us and send us away. Take the baby away. Momma would blame Billie and Billie’s momma, Dora would blame me. Maybe this might ruin her chances of becoming a movie star. Maybe it might my chances of having a normal life. Maybe Momma would have to do something awful to get me out of jail and we’d have to move back into Detroit, where we were at right
now. I shuddered at that thought. Or worse, Grandma would have to bail me out and acknowledge me in public. Grandma had only done it once before-acknowledge me in public. It was the summer of ’82 after we came home after Momma went away for awhile and came back when she was better. That was what they did in those days before something called budget cuts changed all that. For me, I was used to being all alone in her house. I listened to her most days. I stayed away from the windows. I didn’t answer the doors or mess with the locks. I didn’t take baths while they weren’t at home-I was too scared of drowning. Scared that I would slip in the bathtub and unable to breath, not able to reach the locked bathroom door. That dead man had done that to me. Made me afraid of locked doors. I was bored and lonely. I took old cans of tuna, some that Grandma liked to stock up on and feed stray cats. There were a lot of them in our neighborhood. The factories were going through a slump, according to Momma and it was affecting the whole damn economy. She was a waitress, Momma, but the tips weren’t good and she stayed out late. But I just fed the cats and ate blow pops and watched the Pope on TV with Grandma. That was when she was home, which was rare. Momma said that she was a homebody but she was never home and I hated her for that. I hated her always working; she left me sometimes with Grandma and sometimes by myself. I didn’t care if Grandma wasn’t around; I didn’t really need her that much. All she did was invite her boyfriend over; they closed her bedroom door but I heard them in here, the bed knocking against the wall, the paint eventually peeling off into crumbs onto the hardwood floors. That wasn’t all that disappointed me. Grandma refused to hug me. She called me ‘you’ and didn’t use my real name: Abigail or even Abby. She even disappointed me when I overheard her telling Momma that she knew of a good foster care home that would take me in but the worst thing was what happened one night. It was raining that evening and the lights were out. The power was down so I went down to the basement in the dark with a flashlight. I had found a box of matches in Grandma’s drawer and I knew where she kept the Christmas candles. I went down there and grabbed a couple of candles on the shelf in the closet. I took them back upstairs with me into me and Momma’s bedroom. I locked the door so no one could get in. I had a blanket wrapped around me and some candy I had stolen from the store. I had told Momma about it and she was upset but I was hungry and I wanted some candy and I felt better about myself when I stole it right in front of the lady’s eyes and she didn’t say anything. Grandma had found out about it later on and slapped me. I had spit at her, which caused her to really lay into me and slap me again, this time on my rear end. I had looked at her and noticed that her eyes were the same shade green as mine. There was fear behind those eyes. I think she was afraid that something bad was going to happen to her as a result of me and it did. On that particular night, I was also eating an apple from school. The room Momma and I shared at Grandma’s house had three big windows. One faced the house next door and since our room was on the second floor, the other two faced the street. Our bedroom was covered with yellow wallpaper and the carpet was a blend of
orange and yellow. A black-and-white television with an Atari game set that Momma brought home one night and I later found out that she had bought it off the street for me to play Pac Man with, two old bean bag chairs Grandma got from the Salvation Army, a blue box filled with old toys, a wooden dresser with matching mirror and two twin-size beds filled the room. I pulled back the curtain and opened one of the windows. The rain from outside lightly tapped my fingers. I moved the candles to keep the wind from blowing out their light. A dog was barking in the distance and I didn’t have anything else to do so I sat at the window. I tapped my fingernails on the windowsill; a spider dropped down from its cobweb in the corner of the room and I watched its ascent from the top to the bottom. It was moving down too quickly before dropping down on the hardwood floor, disappearing with the chair scratches. Way up the street I saw a group of kids on their bikes; they were headed my way but the traffic light stopped them from crossing the street. They turned their bikes around and went into the gas station. I wanted to cry because I didn’t have anyone to play with and I longed to be out there with them, though it was sprinkling of rain just a little bit. I had money in my pocket and imagined buying candy for all of us. That would never happen though because I didn’t fit in with them. They didn’t know me. I stayed in the house all the time. I wanted to be free and to go out and join them but I knew they would never accept me. All it took was for one of them not to like me and the rest followed. Even Grandma’s boyfriend avoided me like I had a disease. He tried not to speak more than a sentence or two to me so most nights, I stuck my head out the window and one time, I cried and fell asleep there. Momma had woken me up and brushed an ant off my face. Those kids on their bikes didn’t know me either and in a city where people refused to help you out unless they knew you, I was stuck. There was a bend in the sidewalk. The rain was coming down heavier. One of them was way behind the rest. It looked like his tire was flat. He was yelling up the street at the others but they wanted to get home. Their clothes were soaked; their hair was matted. I grabbed my flashlight and darted out of the house. I beamed the flashlight down onto the sidewalk so I could get a good look at the boy. He was black; completely. As I got closer, I realized that the boy and the others weren’t friends. They were yelling, calling him names. Snot was falling from his nose. The other kids were throwing things at him, at us. Telling him he didn’t belong in their neighborhood. I had a flashlight in my pocket and beamed it down onto the sidewalk so I could get a good look at the boy. I thought that the boy dragging the bicycle went to my old elementary school, the one I went to before I had met Billie, but I wasn’t sure. I had missed a lot of days; so many that I was going to have to repeat a grade. At school, I kept to myself. While the other kids were horsing around in the lunch line, I always made sure that I was first in line. I didn’t want them to know that the school paid for my lunches, or that I paid for snacks from the store from a bag of pennies that I carried around in my pocket. I was one of those that needed help. Not that any of them cared but I didn’t want them to know. I always ate lunch at the end of the long table for my class by myself. Sometimes, two boys that didn’t speak English well sat across from me and blew spit bubbles. Once, a teacher came over and sat next to me. She told me how pretty I was and how lucky I was
that my hair was curly and how different I looked from everyone else. Just in between, she said, just perfect but I didn’t feel perfect. I remember smiling up at her with my green eyes and she patted me on the head. The pat represented the “secret” that I shouldn’t tell anyone, she said. It was in my files but other than that, nobody knew. They could guess, they could speculate, but never really tell. After that, that’s when the names started. I didn’t fit in. The black kids said that I wasn’t one of them, neither did the white kids. The only name they called me that I appreciated was “teacher’s pet.” Everyone sat together but I knew that I really didn’t belong there with them. Out on the playground, I usually sat on the park bench, eating a ham sandwich, sometimes shimmering down the slide and if no one was on a swing, boy, on those days, I had the most fun. On the bus ride home, I would sit by myself near the front and make up stories about actually having friends to tell Momma. I wouldn’t tell her the truth but that I had lots of friends, which was partly true only they were imaginary. I didn’t have to worry about her coming into the school or Grandma neither; we weren’t that kind of family. Anyway, the boy threw something shiny back at the other group of boys that landed in a pile of mud on top of our grass. I threw the flashlight on his face. He couldn’t see me and put his hands up. He said that it was too bright and he couldn’t see but the rain was coming down hair and I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t read lips. I couldn’t see beyond the rain coming down either so I continued to flash the light into his eyes and he continued to look behind him, his bicycle inching closer towards me. The other group of boys, kept throwing things in our direction. He continued to move backward, getting closer and closer to the street. The next thing I knew, he was standing right next to our driveway. I tried telling her later at the police station that I didn’t know he lived in the house right behind us. That he was used to cutting through our backyard to get to his house. Momma had said that the house behind us was vacant, that it was a crack house, to stay away from it and anyone that lived on that block. I didn’t protect the woman’s son. I stood there when the car ran him over. The sounds of her cries came out as whimpers and the blood from my nose when she smacked me and called me a white bitch, asking me why I didn’t protect her son. The best thing that I could do for him was pull his body from the street. That wasn’t good enough for her. She just called me more names. “Uppity brat. Stupid little cunt. He could be dead. My son could be dead! You’re just like the rest of your family. Don’t want to have anything to do with us. I know that you probably have heard the names he’s been called. Bunch of Polacks. Tell us to move somewhere else Well, guess what girly? You’re more like us than like them. Wake up! Didn’t they teach you how to be black? You saw your grandmother.” But it wasn’t my fault. Neither myself, nor the boy, whose name was Stanley, had seen the car coming down the street. The battery died in my flashlight then. It just died or maybe I dropped it. That was the first time that I was haunted by my silence. My silence was reaching over to the passenger seat telling the driver what I should have said: To scream. Stanley’s little body flung across the driveway and landed on the grass like a lawn ornament and that’s exactly how his body fell onto the curb. Grandma later said, “Where were his friends and family at? Why was he playing on another block by himself?” Later, I was “coached” to say that he had been hit in the street and I had “graciously” dragged his body onto the curb. I should have known that
the lights of the car speedily pulling into the driveway belonged to one person. She got out of the car. Her frizzy blown hair had fallen down on her like lumpy bread that hadn’t been cooked right. The cigarettes that I had presumed that she had been smoking fell to the ground and was carried down to the end of the driveway before being swept away into the gutter. Grandma always wore one of those cheap hats on her head but the wind had knocked it across the street. She was in such shock about the boy that she staggered over to him in her black pumps and fell to the ground, her brown stockings covered in mud. I fell down too, shaking the flashlight, a trickle of light beaming into the boy’s bright black eyes. She flung her hand at me, so I turned the light off again. She knelt next to the boy; her green eyes a mix of confusion and anger. She shook him but he didn’t move. Grandma screamed at him, “Why didn’t you see me coming?! Didn’t I have my headlights on? Weren’t you paying attention?” His body lay as peaceful as the hum of her car that she had left on. It was virtually dark outside and her eyes scanned around to see if anyone was watching. As far as I was able to tell, the world was asleep. I knew it was late, very late. Later, at the police station, Stanley’s mother would call me those names because Stanley, in the hospital, told his mother that my Grandma hit him. But when I was asked, me being the only good witness, my reply was, “A stranger.” I thought Grandma, sitting across the desk at the police station from me, would give me a hug. I didn’t get one. I didn’t get anything from her. Later, my mother developed a drug problem and I became afraid, very afraid of small spaces. My cheeks flush as the sound of heart beat faster. The rhythm almost in sync with the man’s boots crunching down on rocks and gravel. I heard him spit something out. He came up on the driver’s side doorway. He spit again and flashed a light into the backseat. It danced across the ceiling of the van; I closed my eyes, sure that it would fall down on my dirty cheeks and matted hair. Then again, maybe our smell might give it away. A creeping odor came up into my nostrils. Billie made a horrible face and I lost the ability to laugh. The man let out a low whistle as he exclaimed, “What do we have here? Double for my trouble.” I was a woman now and not by choice. I had seen so many things and yet, the worse was still to come. Billie and I grabbed each other’s hands as the flashlight danced across the eyes of both myself and her. Gideon started screaming from being smashed in Billie’s arms, and I took my fingers and placed them inside his mouth. But it was too late. The man climbed out of the truck, slammed the front side door shut and walked around to the back. I know that I could make a run for it but what about Billie.? I see the look of sheer terror on her face. She then looked down, and shrugged her shoulders. She was trying to soothe Gideon but he wouldn’t stop crying. The man opened the door and pushed the flashlight back and forth between us. “Well, well,” he said, stroking his scruffy beard, “what do we have here? Runaways? Stowaways? Playing hide-and-seek?” he asked. He took a long hard look at Gideon and then at Billie and finally at me. “No, you’re not playing hide-and-seek. Not with a baby,” he said and reached across the van’s interior for rope. I tried to hop out but the man pushed me back with a shove and I bump my head against the van’s interior. Hard. Hard enough that I started crying. Billie tried climbing over the small metal ladder with Gideon in her arms but the man yanks her back with his hand. He grabbed the back of her head and threw her against the
van’s interior. Gideon falls into a cold lump on the ground. By now, he is wailing and the man shouted at me, “Shut him up! Shut him the fuck up! I don’t care if you have to take out one of your breasts and feed him but shut him up or I’ll shut him down. Got it!” he said. “I can’t breastfeed,” I said and he punched me in the eye. By now, Billie is crying as the man orders her to tie me with the rope he conveniently has in the back, our new “home” now. Billie mouths the words ‘I’m sorry’ to me as she ties me up, but she doesn’t go fast enough for the man, and he pushes her out of the way. He ties her up and then he ties me up. He tosses Gideon into Billie’s arms. Billie’s voice is shaky as she asks him, “Say, mister, where are you taking us?” He then gags he with a white cloth and some kind of paint substance. Drool falls between her mouth and drips down onto her chest. I’m crying now too as I watch my bestest friend being tied up by some maniac. Even her hands are tied up so that she cannot even soothe Gideon who is whimpering through hushed tones. The man then orders me in the front seat. He said he wanted to have a conversation. I never could have anticipated that our conversation would change my life forever. Billie and Gideon are tied up in the back seat. I move to the front with tears streaming down my face. Just so that I cannot escape, the man ties my hands together with rope and then ties the rope around the steering wheel. “Don’t try any funny business. You’ll mess up the steering wheel, and then the van, and then? Then? You and I will have a serious problem, young lady.” I nod my head in agreement. “You think I’m the bad guy, huh? Cause I tied up your little friend back there. What are you, friends or…” his voice trailed off. “We’re best friends,” I said. “Best friends. That’s good. What on Earth made you pick my van to hide in. Cause you two are definitely hiding. What? Someone pick on you. I thought kids didn’t like playing with babies after a certain age. What are you? Ten? Eleven?” he asked. “ Twelve,” I said, lying through my teeth. I turn around and look back at Billie. She nods her head in approval. “Twelve? Kind of small for a twelve-year-old and kind of too old to be playing hideand-seek. That was what you were playing.” “No, we were running away,” I said and Billie starts whimpering. I turned around again and I see her tucking her head to the side. She is signaling to me that she wants to go home. I swallow, hard. “Running away?” he asked, but it was more like a statement, and he laughed. “We were going to a party, actually,” I said. “Did you think someone was actually going to let you into a party? Particularly carrying a baby along,” he said. He pulled a cigar out of his side pocket and lit it up. He offered the cigar to me, and though I coughed uncontrollably, I puffed a few times on his cigar. “The baby came along later,” I replied, handing the cigar back to him. “So, let me get this right. You were running away to a party and then somewhere along the line, a baby came along and you just so happen to find yourselves in the backseat of my van. Do you know who I am?” the man asked. “No, but I’m sure you’ll tell me,” I said, trying to be as brave as possible for myself and Billie and Gideon too. “I’m not a Michigander. I’m from Mexico. The coast. Headed back to my hacienda. So what do you think is going to happen to you, little lady?” he asked.
“ I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t know black people lived in Mexico, so I guess I’m going to Mexico. I guess we’re all going,” I said. “Not quite. See, if the authorities see that baby in the backseat and your friend tied up, then, well, that won’t look too good but. But, if it’s just me and my daughter then it won’t be a problem. So, we have to get rid of your friend and the baby. See, I like you. You know why? Because of those pretty little eyes you have. They have fire in them. I like that. But your friend looks white or is white and I can’t have that. No, not a missing little white girl. So, she stays here in town. We’ll leave: you and I. The baby will go with your friend. Now, how does that sound?” “Do I have a choice?” I asked. The back of his hand hits me against the side of my face. He smiled through tears. “Don’t make me have to hit you again.” I didn’t know what the tears were for. They certainly weren’t for me. They weren’t for Billie or Gideon or anyone else. Hell, I doubted if the tears were actually based on an emotion and not just his eyes watering up, just because. I tried to change the subject. “Say, Mister. What’s your name?” I asked. I tried to be as polite as I could muster. “Don’t have a name. Just call me strange or John Doe . And what’s your name, little lady?” he asked. His tears were drying up and I got a good look at him. His hair was matted and he had red streaks down his face, almost making him look clownish. “Billie,” I lied. I said it and instantly regretted it. I could hear Billie mumbling through her gag in the backseat. She definitely wasn’t happy with what I said. She began kicking the van’s wall and knocked Gideon over until he was lying face down on the van’s floor. “She doesn’t like that, which makes me think you’re lying. Are you a liar?” he asked. I shook my head no. “Good. Then let’s try this again. What’s your name? Don’t make me use this,” he said, pulling out a knife. He licked the knife and then wiped the spit from the knife on the side of my head. “It’s Abby,” I said. “Good, good. And your friend’s name?” he asked politely. “Billie.” “Billie. That’s a boy’s name. What’s a little thing like her doing with a boy’s name?” he said. His voice was hushed; his tone mocked my answers so I was careful how I responded. “I don’t know,” I said. My face was bright red. I had mixed feelings about him. On the one hand, I wanted him to like me because I was feeling grown-up but on the other hand, I was a little afraid of him. “Don’t know. That’s okay. Hey, look up! Look at me. My, what pretty eyes you have my dear. You’re too young for contacts. You should be grateful that you have pretty eyes. Do you think my eyes are pretty?” The Stranger asked and kissed me on the cheek. I looked at his eyes. They were dark and hard like a horse’s. It was strange. The two of us sitting there in his car, not moving. Reluctantly, I shook my head no. “No? Good girl. An honest girl. I like that. You and I are going to get along just fine. But now, we have to decide what to do about your friend. What should we do? Dump them in the river?” he asked, again very politely. He took his pinkie finger and began
nibbling on his fingernail. “No. I want to talk to her,” I said. I thought maybe I could buy some time, at least for Billie. I had a plan to save her and Gideon. “You want to talk to her. About what? You’re not thinking of leaving me? That would be a shame. A shame I won’t allow. See, I’ve had too many women leave me. My mother left because my father used to kick her ass. Then, my babysitter quit on me after I showed her a dead squirrel. I was preparing to cook it up for our supper. I like eating wild animals. Makes a man appreciate fast food. You like squirrel?” he asked. “I hate my grandmother. She’s a bitch. And my mother is a whore. Same for Billie’s mama too,” I volunteered. I began chewing my fingernails too. “Bummer. That’s too damn bad. I hate bitches!” he screamed. He pounded his head against the steering wheel and turned the ignition on. The van began puttering along, sounding like a race car winding down after speeding around the track. “I do too,” I said, and put my head in between my legs to keep myself from crying. “Well, that’s good,” he said, and wiped the tears from his eyes, “I like you and I don’t want you to leave me but your friend has to go. Say we drive down to Belle Isle and push your little friend into the river. Don’t worry. Maybe the Coast Guard will find her little body. Then, you and I will drive down to Mexicantown for some authentic cuisine and then, and then…Guess what? Guess what we’re going to do, huh? We’re going to drive to Mexico. You’ll be my sister. Yes, my little baby sister. Adopted. Tragically, mom and dad are in the military and they’re stationed just over the border. I took you to New Mexico to visit Grandma who had this van for me. You asked to come along and I said yes. How does that sound?” “It sounds like you are making it up as you go along,” I said. He slapped me again. I bit my lip to keep from crying. He started laughing at me. “You’re right but not in this van. No, in this van, I’m the one with the smart answers. After all, I’m your older brother. Now, go in the back and say goodbye to your little friend.” I shook my head yes. Billie had heard the entire conversation and was crying. I started crying myself because I know what I have to do, but I want to talk to Billie first. I take off her gag. “I’m going to Mexico. I’m going to see the world, “ I said. “I know. I heard,” Billie said. She is still crying but whimpering more than the sobs that I had heard previously. “And you can’t come with me, either. I guess this is the end of the road. You just have to remember as much as you can so they can find me, Billie. Don’t let them not find me, okay?” I said. “Of course, they are going to find you, stupid. You heard him yourself. Those pretty eyes of yours. Just do me a favor, okay?” she asked. “What? Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me,” I beg her because I know if she says it, I’ll begin to cry. Billie surprises me with her answer. “ Don’t disappear. Don’t get caught on a milk carton. I don’t want to drink milk and see your face. You’re too pretty for that.” “I won’t,” I say, and swallow, hard. She smiles a bit. Encourages me to untie her hands, and then after she is completely untied, she whispers in my ear. Billie’s plan is one of the craziest that I’ve heard. She promises that she will come back for me but while he is distracted, one of us must escape.
I remember the way the shape of her face looked that night: Angular and heart-shaped, as if she were posing for a portrait. Billie put her hair behind her ears. I want to cry as she’s whispering to me. Cry that her selfishness was the reason why I was partly jealous of her, why I followed her into the city, and why I was not following her: I was growing up. I was making a conscious decision not to return home. The stranger continued driving along. I asked him if I could take the gag off her mouth. He said yes, but no funny business. I didn’t know at the time that it would be the last conversation I would have with Billie. Looking back, I should have paid more attention to Billie’s words of wisdom. “Dora’s going to be mad. She’s going to mad that you used her name. It’s a pretty name, though.” “Not as pretty as my real name. I like my name, Billie. I like you,” I said and started to cry. “Untie me,” she whispered, “I’m going to tell you a story.” I loosely untied her and she held Gideon in one arm and placed the other arm around me. “Once upon a time there were two little girls that lived in the forest. They were sisters. One was older than the other one. They ran away from home because home wasn’t a happy place, but you see, they were wrong. Home is a happy place. So, while they were in the forest, they came across a pack of wolves, but the wolves let them continue on their way. See, they were on their way to Grandmother’s house and…” “Billie, I know this story. I’ve heard it before. You’ve heard it before. Why are telling me this?” “Just listen. The wolves in the forest came after the two little girls who were on their way to their Grandmother’s house. They should have stayed on the path but they got off the path, but they still got to Grandmother’s house. The wolves didn’t get them. No, what I mean?” she asked. I shook my head no. “The wolves didn’t get them because they were wearing cloaks. They learned to hide in the forest. Let’s do it together. All or nothing,” Billie said. “Billie, I don’t have the strength to run anymore. Just you and Gideon. The three of us can’t do this. He needs to be distracted and you know it,” I whispered, pointing at the stranger. He fixed his mirror and began making faces at us. “What are you girls planning back there? Do I need to tie you up again?” he asked. He begins laughing like a maniac, like he’s won some kind of prize. Billie was crying and she gave me a hug. “You’re my sister, you know that. You are my sister. Blood sisters. Will we ever see each other again? Probably not. If you go with that man to Mexico, he might kill you, Abby. We’re still in Detroit. We’re still safe.” “I’m not going back home,” I said with finality. “Why? Don’t you know how important you are. Your momma cares, and so what if your Grandmother doesn’t. I care. We can be friends and family,” Billie says. “You have to. He’s taking you to the River. If you escape before then, you survive. I survive. Just be humble, be submissive but get back to your Grandmother’s house, or your Momma’s house. Any house. Just get back here. Don’t forget about us!” Billie said, she was crying and I had tears in my eyes.
I nodded my head. “Follow my lead,” I said. I walked back up to Chase, I put my hands over his eyes, and screamed, “Run, Billie, Run!” She tried grabbing Gideon and going back out the back of the van but the van door was stuck. The Stranger started screaming, started fighting with me so I bit him. Billie ran up front with Gideon in her arms, pushed open the door and jumped out. She fell on the ground with Gideon in her arms as the van swerved to miss hitting a tree. The Stranger punched me in the face. I cried out but not because he hit me but because I could see Billie running in the opposite direction. I had saved her life. I didn’t know how brutal my life would turn out as we headed to Mexico, that I would become an actress on the street and the stranger would become my director but I had saved Billie. Billie survived but her life was never the same after that night either. The final chapter for Billie: You taught me how to talk, Abby. I see through your eyes and beyond to the emptiness inside me. A fire blazes in front of me and again on the television. It reminds me of the failures of my life. I first run away from home when I am just a child. I am out of prison for a crime I didn’t commit: the murder of Gideon’s mother. I didn’t know where you are, Abby. Someone miraculously found us and took us to the police station but it was those Persian boys against me. I didn’t have you to back me up. They didn’t even believe my story, Abby. Five years pass. I’m sent to a juvenile detention center where the girls make an example out of me. I’m beaten up daily, not for murder, but for ratting on Sam and Davy. They call me Oreo. See, I was told that if I picked just those two out of a lineup, Sam and Davy, and lie and say I had sex with just them, that I would go free. That would just be given probation for sex. So, I did but someone had to take the fall for driving the car. Gary said it was me. They all said it was me except Dennis. Dennis wanted to help me but he wasn’t there. My public defender said that he wasn’t allowed to come around me for personal reasons. I know Dennis would have told the truth but they wouldn’t let him come around. Gideon was taken from us, and the Persian boys got probation. No one knew where you were at, Abby, so I got stuck. But then later, things get better. I’m given probation. I simply walk out of prison and no one is waiting for me. Other people have family members and friends waiting for them; I have nothing but the promises I make to myself. The girls in there didn’t believe me when I tell them that I am going to be famous. No one in prison has left there to really do anything with their lives but I feel different about the world. I start having dreams about you. The other girls say that you aren’t real and to get over it but I love you from the moment you appear to me. We had so much in common. You are faceless; a transplant from another part of me. I spend days waiting for you to come back, praying for your return. Anything I think I need to see you; I sell my soul to the devil to get. You have demons yourself, Abby. Most people on television portray themselves like saints and not sinners, just like the girls did in prison, smiling and grinning in front of our “fathers,” and then killing each other, tearing ourselves down behind their backs. You are real, Abby. I write you letter after letter, tearing them up before completion,
knowing that it is impossible for you to feel the words of sorrow running through me. You do not know who you belong to, and I don’t either. You are different, Abby. I have written letters to you, asking if we are our own worst enemies. Only that letter didn’t make it out of these walls. “Daddy” decided not to send it. He is a drunk, an alcoholic who decided to make an example out of me behind these walls. He came into my cell at nighttime to bother me. The girl across from me lets anyone have her. She is too far gone; she lets this place get to her. She eats their food and lets the water cascade in waterfalls down her back. I only knew her for a short time. Most of the time, I am alone. When they came for me, I start to claw at the wall and rip my uniform. I drink water from the toilet and shit in my pants. When “Daddy” came for me, I didn’t break. I told him that I was saving myself for you. He didn’t believe me. He came for me and I scream so loud, they send me away by myself. I scream the entire time I am in there. I drool on myself so they will leave me alone. I eat without forks or knives until they threaten me and stop bringing me food. I tell them that I only want you in my world and no one else. No women, no men, no mothers, no daddies, no sugar daddies, no friends, no playmates, no music, no food, no water on my body, no nothing except you next to me. I spend my entire life waiting for you. I walk out the prison, and stick out my thumb. A man is heading in my direction. He asks me if I am on something because I am sweating and nervous and I need to see you again. I try to find you but your Momma is gone. She had a breakdown, Abby. He is struck by my beauty and said that it is a shame that a beautiful girl such as me has wasted so much of my life behind the walls. He offers his hands to me, and I take them in mine. I let his hands throw me against the sky and I fall back again. I was spinning with the smell of roses at my feet. He was smiling but I’m not. Where are you Abby? Why didn’t you run with me? At least I would know what happened to you. The one person that means the most to me I never ever see again. This is the story of how I came to be: You are an actress on the streets. He is the director reading the script. You drove there by yourself. It was going to be a surprise for Momma. She thought you were dead. You didn’t want to see her again until you are “successful.” You won’t tell her what kind of director he is. Just want to tell her about the money but too much time passes and you forget about Momma. They ask you for his name when he comes to the door. You says that his name is Jesus Christ. Even though he doesn’t look like Jesus or even a Jesus, you say nothing. You are asked why were you asked to meet him at a house? He comes up with the ultimate excuse: He’s shooting the movie here in Mexicotown and eventually Mexico. The house is where the film will be located. What better way for you to become intimate with the script than to perform there. You look around. The house has graffiti on the walls. Years later, the house will look the same. It is the same matchbox house on every block with stupid Christmas ornaments that will light the night sky. It is cold outside. There is another man in the house. His chapped lips worry you. You offer him Vaseline but when he takes it, he begins to eat it and then you. The cameras are rolling. You look at the stranger in confusion. He tells you the man is a ghost, a boat person and he doesn’t exist to you. Okay, you say, you get it. You are playing a mother in a role suited for one. He briefly yells cut and then starts the scene again. You forget your lines, then you remember, then you forget again. You can
feel the sunlight across your eyes. Then you remember that you are a failure because there is no audience around and you start to cry. The director puts his hand on your shoulders. He puts the film away and says that you are better than what he has to offer. He’d rather you be looking through a mirror with no one looking right at you, than immortalized. Once, that happens there is no looking back, no mistakes, no coming to me crying. Don’t worry, he says, this is just for pretend. It’s not for real. That’s why he has to travel around so much because of who he is. He’s famous on the streets, you know that. He says that you remind him of the last one. You are the one he says. You are too beautiful for anything except the frame he captures your face in. It’s a shame what happens to young ladies that don’t make it, you say, to try to make him feel better. You hear a noise coming from beside you. He kisses you and a pill from his mouth falls into yours. Swallow it, he says. That’s what the actress you want to play would do, he says. What’s it for? You ask. Oh, just to take the edge off of you. You swallow and laugh. He shoves you into the couch. You are different, he says. You have an exotic look. You do what you are told. No, the world needs more of your kind around. Your looks actually saves you for once. The room is double-sided; one side belongs to him and the other side belongs to you. He says then that he has a confession to make. It’s the aspirin he gave you earlier. No, it’s something else. But you don’t care. Let’s play a game, he says. There is laughter in the background coming from someplace other than you or him so you guess it would be all right. Okay, you say. So you invite him inside you. He climbs up; you go down. He lifts you up and turns you around. You are now looking at the world from upside down. The floors are dirty with dust, gray spiders and you can see too many cracks in the floor but the ceiling is perfect. No one can touch it and even the cracks in the foundation have only touched the walls. It is an old house, common in Detroit. It was built a long time ago when houses were built with care. Each brick was a piece of the bricklayer’s hands. He patted them down softly, just like that wall built across Eight Mile Road so many years ago. Both of you love history. You reach up towards it but it’s too far away. Your head is being knocked against the floor until your head threatens to explode but you can’t catch your breath long enough to scream ‘stop’ or even ‘fire!’ What pretty eyes you have, my dear, he says. You noticed them for the first time. How did we get to this point? Was it by chance? Or perhaps we should move to a room with no furniture except a couch, nothing in the refrigerator except milk with no razor blades for the stranger to shave his back and towel to cover the blood staining this house, making it acceptable to destroy this perfect house. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth we go until you are born again and he screams out that you are what he’s been looking for. After that, he gets real excited. He tells you to pack your things. You two are getting married. He says he just needs to call the newspaper and cancel the ad that you answer. You find this all to be new and amazing. Who will think that lady luck is on your side? There is a low laughter in the background but you ignore it, as you have done very times before. He kisses you again and says that he needs you to come back tomorrow and he says the two of us will conquer the world. You believe him, being in love and feeling safe. You leave that scene, that house and you are alone again. You know The Stranger won’t be happy with that. Jesus. When you never see him again, the laughter that you push into the background comes back this time and it’s deafening. You can stand naked in
front of him and you are invisible unless you are naked on the street corner and hundreds of hands are on top, with you underneath trying to protect their precious city from the sinners like yourself. You travel by bus the week before to visit your mother. She does not remember you but you have finally found her, though you are a failure. There is only an old gatekeeper now in the garden. Complete silence surrounds the trees and the birds and nature that you haven’t seen in years. She is sitting down on a blanket next to a picture of Grandmother. They are both in a place that you know you won’t be going to. I am a product, catalogued and enveloped in a package that does not represent who I am. People follow me. It seems like everyone wants me to go away. They take my mistake and put it next to my mother. There are now three of them, and then there is me. We both have something in common; we both refuse to go back to our old selves. A place where failures go because they forgot why they were there in the first place only for much longer and she will no longer look upon you with sympathy. There are flowers all around and death is calling once again. There are tears running down your eyes but no one will see that. All they will see is the blood found in the car. That image over and over again. You know what they are thinking: What kind of mother leaves her baby in a car? Gideon. Billie took Gideon with her, so you leave your baby, The Stranger’s baby, possibly, in a car, hoping that things will go backwards this time and instead of running away from you, someone (Billie?) will run toward you and rescue you. But no one does and the baby is found on the car. They say that only bad mothers do that… No one loves anymore. You are disgusted and disappointed that you ever came home. You destroy your letters now. You are broken. You are a sick woman who kills her baby by leaving her alone for twelve hours with no food. The baby is not yours, you say. You had that baby with you when you need to give it up, you say. Silence is the answer. You escape from all of the madness. No one even recognizes you. You follow this path from the end of your day to the beginning of your life. You follow this path to the house party where everyone ignores you. You are watching yourself once on television and you say that you like to remain anonymous in public. They are playing music, drunk and loud with the deafening noise of synthesizers. You are in the corner smoking a cigarette and eating a ham sandwich. Someone offers you a drink filled with love. You refuse. They offer again. You refuse. It’s not that kind of party, you say. You follow redemption, or so you think up to the third floor, past the Victorian-lace curtains and the picture of the Madonna crying on the wall. You are dressed up like a dark bride, only you cannot recognize this because of the celebrating and you are stumbling over furniture, trying to make it to the bathroom before anyone sees the slow-dry vomit fall from your lips. Someone cups their hand on your shoulder and helps you into the bathroom. You look up with blood-red shot eyes and simply say, “Thank you.” You start to cry because your life is falling apart and you are crying because life is just beginning. You’ve waited your whole life for this moment. Something climbs on top of you but you push him off and shake your head no. You say no again. Louder. There is a slur to your voice. You slap away black, fingernail painted hands and push against your breasts. You feel the weight of your fingers leaving indentation marks where the needle has entered the skin again and again. You push it
away, down into the bathtub and run out slamming the door behind you. You are desperate to get away; you push back but you fall into the bathtub on your own accord. The house looks familiar. The walls are covered with human interaction beyond recognition except for that face on the wall. Rescue me, you once say but the face doesn’t stop the needle from going further down into your skin. You knew the faces of those people at the party. They let you in and you didn’t even have to give them anything. They owe you that much or they know you have money. There are mattresses all over the house, even one in the kitchen. Every night, you are with a different man. After someone came after you with a knife, you start sleeping in the closet. You are too far gone to go away. You put boxes near the closet door so you can hear them if they try to come near. You deliberately pee on yourself for added insult. They call you dumb but you don’t mind. You move to try to open the door and it is locked. You know who it is. You don’t know faces but your heart senses something uncommon: a woman who looks just like you. You are both from black-and-white worlds and no one understands you. You scream and leave the house party full of people, some dressed in leotards and one-hand gloves with Jheri-curl juice leaving seep-stained imprints on rented white room furniture. These people are not to be here at this house tomorrow. The grass remains uncut, and other young girls will live on in dreams where they lie down on soiled mattresses and spread their legs for boys who get to remain free for far less than what you have. Momma is actually destroyed by those milk carton pictures, though I didn’t learn this until years later. After that, that director promises you money and more opportunities to be in the movie pictures if you will just puts a little peroxide in your hair, then a small kiss with another woman, and share a little drink with him. You wonder what happened to Billie. She probably dropped out of school. I know that I probably disappoint her if I saw her cause I didn’t finish school either but if you listen to me, you’ll see why it is so important for me not to be overshadowed. My dreams come true, I am famous on the streets, and now I have my wish. People hear my name when you read my letters. You tell yourself about a woman who haunts you and see in the mirror someone who has forgotten where to go next. You long to escape from this city. There are days when you sit so close to the windowsill that you can see the hairs on your body. You are claustrophobic. You find out these things by reading the newspaper and listening to the radio and hearing what people say about you. One famous story is that you were playing with some friends in a different neighborhood as a small child. A game of Spin the Bottle is being played and you are teased for not wanting to go into the closet with a welldeveloped boy. You are afraid because he is older and you wear a leg brace that you keep as a souvenir to this day and you have braces and wear Coke-bottle glasses held together with glue. He begs you to go into the closet first and when you go, they lock you in the closet against your will. You scream and cry and finally began to have a panic attack. There is not a key for the closet door and you are stuck in there for many hours and when they finally get you out, you vow never to stand still again. You are claustrophobic too. The first time that The Stranger touches you, you tremble as he touches your breasts, longing for more. I get out of bed. Clothes register feelings of complacency. I watch him put on a hat and a ring. The hat: black, feels like felt with no feathers but the man feels like singing. A familiar tune plays on the record player about a man and a gun. Breakfast with a silver reflection; mirrors with a broken spoon looking back at a bloody plate. My
nose is bleeding but I wonder can someone hear them? Can the people driving down the street see them? Once again I am overshadowed. My hands across him, the sharp sting of a hand around his face. And then those words: I’ve got a secret. I am pregnant; I am going to tell. I’m going to tell how long we’ve been together. The last thing I feel is his hands now around my throat. And then, I am quiet. A year later: I told you to leave me alone. To stop haunting me. You could feel the dropping of my eyes from the effects of sour-whiskey on my breath. The matches in between my fingers, ready to throw everything away. I recall the conversation between me and him: “I need you. Do you think you can love me?” His sick, sad reply, “No. I don’t think I can.” But he marries me anyway and I become a child bride in Mexico. The priest doesn’t even look at me when he sends me off. You don’t even give my ring. I have nothing. I have nothing to remember that fateful night, and even if I did, would anyone believe my story? There were voices far away inside my head when he said that. Telling you about distance and blight. Making you leave, Billie—all eight hundred and ten different worlds in Detroit burned that night. Every time a match was lit, your spirit traveled away. Not one of them was you, Billie. No, you killed me instead, Billie, when I never ever heard from you again. It was worse than not even hearing from my mother and when I finally did she was too far gone. I was just a ghost to her. She didn’t believe who I said I was. Too much time had passed. I blame you, Billie, and that night. Hell, 1984 would always be a crappy year for me. Moving slowly, like wine until our friendship faded away. It doesn’t come back. It never will.