First published in The Greensboro Review Included in Downriver: short stories, winner of the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman (Carolina Wren Press, 2008)
Of all the ways I knew Jeanne Leiby— as teacher, editor, mentor, friend—I knew her least of all as a writer. I’d read a few of the stories that appear in Downriver before the collection was published and the rest of them when it came out in 2008, taking them in quickly between the readings and signings and parties that came along with the book’s publication. Now, six years later and three years after Jeanne’s death, in re-reading the collection in order to choose a story for Burrow Press Review’s short story month, I see her more clearly as a writer—a writer who, when teaching or editing or mentoring, really did know what the hell she was talking about when she talked about the short story. Nike Site is a story centered around dualities: the twin voices of Petie, the first person narrator who speaks both for herself and also for the “we” that is the whole fifth grade class; the secret world of children in tension with the distant, whispering world of their parents; and the close, immediate geography of the Nike Missile Site that seems to be the only thing standing between these characters and the larger panorama of a country embroiled in Watergate and Vietnam. Nike Site also features some of the collection’s strongest ongoing themes and motifs—the bond between sisters, the mysteries of burgeoning sexuality, and the resilience of the children who grew up in Jeanne’s beloved Downriver Detroit in the 1970s. Jeanne’s various legacies as teacher, editor, mentor and friend live on in the Orlando literary community through the many writers who knew her, in the 15 Views of Orlando collections (published by Burrow Press and edited by her former student, Nathan Holic) that were inspired by a classroom writing exercise she assigned, and by way of the Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Prize sponsored by The Florida Review literary magazine at the University of Central Florida. However, with Nike Site, it is her legacy as a writer that is made most evident by the taut, evocative prose and through the story’s darkly optimistic characters. ~Susan Fallows
Miss Lejewski, our fifth grade teacher, had lopsided tits and a spitting problem. Even if we tilted our heads, her left breast dipped two inches lower than her right. Because of the spitting, none of us willingly sat in the front row except Benny Lanny. He was going to be president someday—everyone said so until he lost his arm—and by fifth grade he already understood the importance of pleasing authority figures. I didn’t mind the spitting. My family owned a 23-foot Chris Craft, which was moored at a rundown marina on the Detroit River in the shadows of BASF Chemicals. I was used to spray and dampness. But if I sat in the front row, I couldn’t make sense of the chalk lines that danced across the blackboard. I’d fall into the rhythm of the rubber-banding spit threads that connected Miss Lejewski’s upper and lower lips; I’d count the number of times they expanded and contracted before snapping, count Mississippis and chimpanzees until another thin white strip of elastic attached itself.
This was Downriver Detroit, a place called Riverview that didn’t view the river anywhere except from the poorest block of shotgun houses opposite the chemical plant.
This was 1974; our ten-year-old eyes were opening onto a world as off-center, out of balance, lopsided as Miss Lejewski’s tits. Our parents played hearts together, drank beer from the bottle, sipped medicinal smelling drinks called Rusty Nails. Our fathers sucked on cigars with white plastic tips. From dark hallways and dens, we listened to conversations we didn’t understand: we heard names like Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Dean. We knew there were places called Vietnam and Saigon and that Kimmy Rocozy’s oldest brother was something called MIA. We fell asleep in the blue puddles of light from the television to the gently wicked music of our parents’ laughter.
We were the kids: one body, one voice. We told the same stories, sang the same songs. Our favorite was Bye, Bye Miss American Pie. We knew what “Chevy” was because our parents worked downtown at Ford, Chrysler, and GM. We didn’t know “levee” but still sang with all the passion our small frames could muster: this will be the day that I die. This will be the day that I die.
Miss Lejewski taught us to sing My Funny Valentine and Alfie and even Jeremiah was a Bullfrog, but we were instructed to hum over the word “wine” because we were only ten years old. Miss Lejewski sang until her shoulders shook, tits bounced out of sync, spit threads pumped away double time. In fifth grade, everything seemed to end in America the Beautiful, and with Benny Lanny standing next to his desk, hand over his heart.
Riverview was just like Southgate, Trenton, and Wyandotte; small suburbs framed by big streets. You knew you passed from one city to the next only when the refrain of fast-food restaurants began again. When finally we made it to high school, it was in the parking lot of the Riverview McDonald’s where we learned to kiss and drink and smoke and fight for our territory.
But in fifth grade, we owned only the playground, the big clay field that bellied up to the deserted Nike Missile Site. The rumor was that some kid from Trenton got himself electrocuted in the Nike site’s underground caverns. So when our red-rubber dodgeballs bounced over the fence or a Wiffle ball went foul, we had to learn to let it go. We’d run, curl our fingers around the gray mesh wire. Down the line, you’d hear us whisper I dare you, but none of us dared. Not even Benny Lanny, who would do anything heroic. Or Albert McElroy, who would do anything cool. Or even Kimmy Rocozy, who would do anything you told her to. Our world was flat; the Nike Missile Site was the very edge. Beyond the scrub oak, the hard gray mud, the twisted metal of things we didn’t understand, was surely Russia and then total darkness. The sun set over the Nike site, dropped down into the unspeakable, and it looked like a cold, red mushroom cloud. None of us dared speak it, but we knew that beyond the Nike site was where the end of the world would most certainly begin.
It was 1974. We were ten years old. The world was flat, damp, and lopsided, the warped cover of a book we weren’t sure we’d ever learn to read.
* * *
On Halloween night 1974, Albert McElroy shot Benny Lanny in the arm with Mr. McElroy’s pistol. Everybody knew Albert was capable of stealing the gun and bullets and even of pulling the trigger, but nobody wanted to believe that it was Benny who lost his arm. Not me, who heard it happen. Or Mom, who called the ambulance. Or even Albert’s sister, Trini, who saw the whole thing. Nobody could believe it, not even Polack Joe whose ceramic deer lay headless and shattered in the side lot between our houses.
Albert told the medics who came with the ambulance that he was hunting. I’s aiming for that deer, he said, pointing to the headless body. Hit it once, in the eye even. But later he told the social worker assigned to his case that he was really attempting suicide. The social worker was a fawn-eyed woman who came to our homeroom to counsel those of us who claimed to be Albert and Benny’s best friends. We were pulled out of class twice a week for several months and taken to a small windowless room adjacent to the principal’s office. In that small space that smelled vaguely of oranges and floor wax, she talked to us in a quiet, gentle voice about acceptance, tolerance, a heart open to loving those who were less advantaged. She encouraged us to talk about our fear.
I said nothing; Kimmy Rocozy and I held hands, held our tongues about not liking Albert very much, his big, nasty mouth, green teeth, the acidic smell that surrounded him. But we reveled in being singled out. We felt important sitting next to the woman with the bright peasant skirts, and we counted the number of silver bands that twisted and roped around her bony fingers.
Albert didn’t come back to our school, but we still saw him walking the train tracks and playing along the fence of the Nike site. Eventually, the story of what happened that Halloween night began to change. People began to say that Albert was being charged with assault with deadly weapon.
You all want to know that truth and I’ll tell you, he supposedly said when he was brought into the juvenile court. I’s aiming for Benny Lanny’s heart. And I didn’t miss by much.
The truth was we probably didn’t care very much for Benny Lanny either. But he was one of us, a part of us, just like Albert. Adults thought Benny was an angel child; he delivered the daily Detroit Free Press, stayed after school on Fridays to help Miss Lejewski clean erasers and wash the blackboard. Benny Lanny sat in the front row when no one else dared. Just as we all knew Albert McElroy was our bad boy, we knew that someday Benny Lanny would be our hero. How it started or when it happened, we didn’t know. But we took for granted that Benny would be the one to show us how to see the world, how to get beyond the gray skies of Detroit that were always thick with the briny smell of the river.
We believed, too, that Albert could want to murder. Wild and untamed our mothers whispered, loud enough for us to hear every word. Three McElroy boys and one girl lived with their father in a shotgun house sandwiched between the BASF plant and the deserted D.T. & I. railroad yard. Mr. McElroy had been a tool-and-die man, but now he didn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t work. Anytime, day or night, at least one McElroy shuffled along the tracks and the twisted metal of the old rail cars.
Like a pack of dogs our mothers said, wild-eyed and probably rabid. The McElroy boys wore dirty, faded sweatshirts, ripped-out blue jeans from the Salvation Army, tennis shoes and worn-out loafers from St. Vincent DePaul. They threw stones at each other, or, if they were alone, they threw stones at those of us foolish enough to come close.
Hillbillies, our mothers concluded, then they took their change from the checkout girls, and snapped closed the buckles of their purses. Car trunks slammed on loads of groceries and clean laundry. They herded us into front seats, back seats, booster seats. They made quick and easy plans for a weekend hearts game, threw distracted call-me’s over their shoulders.
Nyla in the front seat, me in the back. Our mother half-twisted in the driver’s seat, her arm outstretched and bent crooked. The glowing end of her cigarette, the growing length of ash. The voice of J.P. McCarthy, the theme song and bells for WJR making the hour, every hour. The car sliding slowly backward, so I didn’t know for certain who was moving, us or them. The grocery store, Laundromat, gas station, car wash. And sometimes, if Nyla and I behaved well, the Dairy Queen for vanilla cones dipped in cherry. Always, it seemed, if there was nothing else to talk about, gossip about the McElroys. Mom was alone now, with just Nyla and me, and she said it again: Wild-eyed northern hillbillies. You girls stay out of trouble. Stay away from those boys.
* * *
Trini McElroy was the only person I ever saw walk through the Nike site, and what our parents said of her wasn’t so easy to understand. She was supposed to be in high school, but in the afternoons, we often saw her outside the window of Miss Lejewski’s classroom, swinging on the playground, rocking on small metal ducks meant for kindergartners. We were afraid of Trini McElroy. She smoked. She blew perfect rings that sat above her head like halos before dissolving into the cloudy skies.
I think she’s pretty and I think she’s brave, I told Nyla one day as we cut across the thick playground mud on our way home from school. Trini stood on the dangerous side of the fence, her red hair draped along the wire, her hands pushed deep into the front pockets of her tight blue jeans. She wore a brown canvas jacket like the one my dad wore to work in the winter, only her collar was pulled up close to her ears.
She’s not even a girl, Nyla said. She’s a slut.
I knew that.
No, you didn’t, but I heard tell she’ll show off her titties if you pay her.
Why would I want to see her titties?
You wouldn’t, stupid. But boys would.
I looked back over my shoulder in time to see Trini take a Coke from her jacket pocket and uncap it with her teeth. She wasn’t one of us; she didn’t belong, but still Trini seemed to own the playground mud, the tufts of grass, and even the Nike site that stretched out beyond the fence.
Don’t even look at her, Nyla said. It’s worse than bad luck.
And this, Nyla would know. She was almost twelve and book-smart. She had ice-blue eyes, blonde hair, and even back then everything about her smelled white and dry, like baby powder. On nights when Mom and Dad fought, I slipped out of bed, sneaked down the hall into Nyla’s room: all white and speckled with purple rosebuds. I skirted the edges of restless dreams that didn’t smell like me, dreams that smelled one year older, like the life I’d always be struggling to grow up into. Nyla was blue eyes, purple rosebuds, and always one year out of reach.
But on the nights when Mom and Dad fought, when the thick and sticky silence followed me into Nyla’s room with the yellow light from the hallway, she taught me how to make myself fall asleep. She showed me how to lie on my stomach with my hands inside my cotton panties. She taught me how to move, to breathe slow and easy like swimming, to exhale into the pillow so Mom and Dad couldn’t hear. Nyla told me this was called playing with myself, something naughty and dangerous in excess, so only do it when Mom and Dad fought and only in her bed.
We raced—counted Mississippis and chimpanzees with one hand tucked into our panties, our other hand resting on the small of each other’s back.
You can’t fake the breathing, Nyla said. You can’t fake the way your back moves. I’ll know if you’re faking.
Later, I wanted to ask Nyla how much it cost to see Trini McElroy’s titties, but I was afraid Nyla would tell, afraid there was something wrong, even in the asking. Nyla grabbed a handful of my coat and pulled me along the sidewalk toward home.
* * *
Even before the shooting, Nyla and I knew there was no way we’d be allowed to stay out trick-or-treating after the streetlights came on. Mom believed that Halloween was a night of rotten eggs and toilet paper, BB guns and firecrackers.
Let them go, Dad said at the dinner table, chewing on a handful of candy corn meant for the kids who would later come to our door. But you girls just remember: anybody gives you a hard time, you kick them in the balls and run like hell.
Dammit, Robert. That’s no way to teach little girls. But we were used to his refrains, the little bits of advice he offered each evening as Nyla and I loaded the supper dishes into the dishwasher. Don’t sweat them little things, he said, Don’t trust holy men wearing white patent-leather shoes, and If everybody likes it, there’s got to be something wrong with it, and my favorite, the one Dad saved just for me: Petie, you’ve got to learn to piss in the wind if it’s important to you.
Dad was on our side, we knew it. He believed it was high time Nyla and I learned to negotiate the streets and the dark. Our subdivision was called Pleasant fucking Run. Dad said, We live on Harmony fucking Drive. How bad can it be? But Mom knew, or thought she knew, and on Halloween night Nyla and I had no choice but to collect all the candy we could before sundown.
I dressed as a hobo, shuffled out the door in Dad’s mud-caked work boots, extra pairs of socks stuffed into the toes so they wouldn’t slip off when Nyla and I ran between houses. His brown canvas work pants were tied at my waist with a rope, and his maroon corduroy work shirt still smelled like sawdust and sweat even though it was fresh from the laundry.
Nyla dressed as a fairy godmother. She wore our mother’s wedding dress safety-pinned in back so it didn’t slip off her thin shoulders. Mom hemmed the train with masking tape. Nyla and I carried marble-eyed pumpkins that bumped together when we walked.
You be the groom, Nyla said and she wrapped her arm around my elbow.
I don’t want to be.
You have to. You’re dressed as the boy. When we get to the end of the sidewalk, I want you to day ‘I do’ and kiss me on the lips.
Our next-door neighbor, Polack Joe, watched us from his front porch. He was in costume, too, and he fiddled with his wax clown mask, straightened the bright orange yarn that stuck out from all sides of his Detroit Tigers baseball cap. Polack Joe lived alone and I was afraid of him. His wife had died years before Nyla and I were born, and he spent most of his time tending to his lawn and the menagerie of ceramic animals in the side lot between our houses.
Nyla, let’s cross the street. But as we turned away from his driveway, Polack Joe called out: You girls come here. There’s something I want to give you.
Mom warned us about being mean to him; she said he was a lonely old man, harmless and that we must be nice. He called out again: Come along, girls. I don’t bite.
Nylas pushed me forward and I shuffled up his walk, careful not to step on his grass. Polack Joe was backlit by the bright light from his foyer, and I could hear the football game over the transistor radio he held in his lap. When we got close enough to see him clearly, he held out two full-sized boxes of Cracker Jacks.
Come on, he said. Take them.
Nyla pushed me forward again, whispered in my ear Get them both, Petie. When I reached out for the boxes of candy, Polack Joe grabbed my wrist. His hands were cold and rough and his breath smelled heavy with cough syrup. Now you listen, you little shit. Take the candy and nothing better happen to my house.
I heard Nyla moving away down the drive. Polack Joe held my wrist. I twisted in time to see Nyla kick off her shoes and run back toward our house. And then I saw Trini McElroy sitting on top of Polack Joe’s ceramic deer. She was laughing at me.
Did you hear me, you little shit? Nothing better happen to my house, or you’re responsible. I nodded. Maybe I even said Okay, and then I broke free and shuffled across his lawn to the dark space between our houses.
Trini was waiting for me in the growing shadow of the maple tree. Give it over, she said and took the Cracker Jack. She bit open the box. Here, you can keep the prize.
She handed me a small white packet, sticky with caramel and smelling like popcorn. Trini hoisted herself back up onto the deer. She had on bright red lipstick and a black t-shirt under her canvas jacket. When she arched her back and poured the candy into her mouth, her titties pressed against the material and distorted the shredded remains of a Mickey Mouse face.
I don’t remember what I felt then, but I know now that even if I had had the vocabulary for lust and sex and desire, that wasn’t it. Trini was fearlessness. I wanted to wrap my hands around the stories our mothers whispered, wring out the silences, let them drip like blood onto the white marble back of the glass-eyed doe. I wanted Trini to scream into my mouth and knead the muscles in my back. I wanted to squeeze out all that danger, see it before me in a puddle, run through it in my father’s work boots, and dance footprints all over the white living-room rug.
What are you looking at? Trini said.
Back then, I didn’t have the words to say it, and Trini must have thought I was a little boy.
I charge for touching, she said. But since you gave me your Cracker Jack, I’ll let you look for free.
Trini balanced the Cracker Jack between the ceramic ears, pulled back her corduroy lapels. She pulled up her T-shirt. Damn, it’s cold. But they look better when they’re cold. I knew it was wrong and I shouldn’t look, but I did and what I saw was me, parts of my body, fuller and rounded and older. Maybe I even reached out my hand.
Bring me a dollar and I’ll let you touch.
From the back door, Mom called me. I knew by the sound of her voice that she had seen me look. Even before I turned around, I knew she would have her hands on her hips, her face twisted into something that looked like a frown. Dad stood behind her in the shadow, but he was not the one who said Petie, it’s time to come inside.
* * *
Nyla cried because Mom would not let us go back outside to trick-or-treat. She made us shower and go to bed immediately even though it was still light outside. In bed, I pulled the blanket over my head, and although I couldn’t hear what Mom and Dad whispered in the kitchen, I knew I was in trouble.
I slipped out of bed, through the half-opened door and into the dull light from the hallway. I couldn’t see where they sat, but the shadows on the wall said there was soon to be a fight. Dad stood with his hands on the edge of the table, and the smoke from his cigar danced above his head like heat waves.
Nyla’s room smelled like baby powder. Nyla, you awake?
Go back to bed, Petie.
Not yet, they’re not. Go back to bed.
In my bed, I raced against myself. I held my breath into the pillow. In my head, I paid the dollar and squeezed for all it was worth.
* * *
I was the one, and maybe the only one, who knew why Benny got shot and that it wasn’t really Albert McElroy’s fault. Through the open bedroom window, I heard them. Benny said he’d already seen a pussy in the magazine his daddy kept behind the toilet. He was going to spread the rumor that Trini did it anyway and everybody knew that nobody believed a McElroy. You might as well do it. Just go ahead and do it. Take the money and do it. Albert fired twice, and in between the shots was a sound like splintering glass.
* * *
For months, we speculated about what the hospital did with Benny’s arm. Someone said the doctors sold it to Albert who stuffed it, and then hung the arm above the fireplace next to the head of the deer Mr. McElroy had hit with his car. Some said the hospital buried its waste in the Nike site, and that’s where the arm was now, just outside the window of Miss Lejewski’s classroom. I didn’t really believe either story, but one thing was certain. Wherever that arm went, it didn’t go alone. We didn’t have the words for it then, but I think we all knew that curled up inside those stiff, cold fingers was a piece of the myth that we’d live forever.
The insurance companies called it “permanent physical disability” and they settled out of court. With the money, the Lannyies set up a limousine service to transport dignitaries from Metro Airport to the Renaissance Center. Once, Benny Lanny got to ride in the same car as President Ford, so Miss Lejewski lined us up on Harmony Drive. We waved our plastic flags at the passing motorcade and sang This Land is Your Land and America the Beautiful. We didn’t care much about President Ford, but Benny Lanny had become our hero. He sat with his father in the front seat of a shiny white limousine, and with his remaining hand, he waved back at us, the cuff of his empty sleeve pinned permanently to the pocket over his heart.