We stood on the corner of Jackoff and Asshole under a buzzing, flickering streetlight—I wanted to put it out of its misery, but I had no gun and could not reach the sky.
Greg leaned into Rita, her back arched against the rough, splintered wood of the light pole while I mostly looked the other way, toward the ramshackle street of weedy, rubbled, vacant lots, with the occasional house, and its murky windows filled with the dim light of security lamps on timers. Midnight was long gone, but its ache echoed in my gut where misery and company were duking it out.
Jackson Street and Ashville Street. We were fifteen, all of us. Friday night, and we were “out.” My parents and Rita’s, down at the Knights of Columbus Hall getting hammered on cheap beer, as usual. The K of C, a windowless, cinder block square they saw as the last outpost of the civilized in our ravaged neighborhood on the edge of Detroit.
Greg’s father was recently dead from a gunshot wound to the head, and while on the street it was rumored to be a suicide, the police had made no such determination. His mother wasn’t answering the phone, though we all knew she was holed up in their tiny box house. People stopped to stare as if the door was covered with blood in the shape of the Virgin Mary or Jesus H. Christ. Lots of people in the neighborhood had disappeared, but few inside their own houses.
Greg’s mother still had his two-year-old step-brother at home. You wouldn’t think she’d have motives, but maybe she did. I’m sure they were talking about it that very moment down at the K of C. Greg was now a rambling man and had spent a week at my house on the basement couch waiting for his house to be clear of the surly detectives who, according to Greg, wanted to call it a suicide and be done with it, but troubling facts kept getting in the way.
Rita and I had grown up together when every house was occupied and every check was embossed with the oval logo of Ford, the Chrysler star and pentagon, or the dull square block of GM, and we all sang the Kumbaya of the Big Three. Fifteen years ago, when we were still a planet in the solar system, before someone rewrote the definitions and kicked us out of the club and left us clueless or jobless or both. Our parents were servants for the Ford family. Rita’s parents had encouraged me to call them Aunt and Uncle, but that never really caught on. They seemed needy for affection, and that kind of freaked me out. Her father smoked a pipe, which was also odd—he smelled like no other father. Rita said he did it to get rid of the factory stink. But it’s our stink, I told her. Aren’t we supposed to love it?
At home, my father only shook hands, and then only on special occasions that did not involve affection, only some kind of hard bargain. I had my own aunts and uncles. Rita was an oddity on our block of mostly Catholics—an only child. A story there, but no one was telling us kids. I was one of seven kids in a three-bedroom box, so the street gave me breathing room and a different kind of wreckage from inside the house. We both lived on the street, regardless of weather or season. Our parents joked about there being more room for the rest of us as people who could afford to cleared out and many of the houses collapsed in on themselves or were set on fire by their own children. Rita was lonely in the forced cheeriness of that gray house with her parents. Everyone had their own room in that house where they went to recuperate after their strenuous rounds of gaiety. At least my house had chaos and bitterness going for it.
I shuffled my feet in the broken glass and crumbled cement that gathered next to the curb. Jackson and Ashville. I stared into the dark nothing and listened to low, wet groans rumble beneath the light’s buzz. I did not want to turn back to watch.
We weren’t even drunk, so I had nothing to blur the few stars above me. My brother Randy was pissed off at me for taking his Barracuda out for a little spin and said he’d never buy booze for me again. The yellow Barracuda, sleek and low to the ground—my wet-dream car, and I could not help myself. I’d only driven it around the block, but Randy was standing at the curb when I pulled back up in front of the house.
On the chubby side, I was big enough to get teased for my tits in gym class. Rita was chubby also, and thus developed early and caught the eye of a lot of the guys who had not experienced first-hand such development. So, our tits caught the eyes of the guys, but that’s where similarities ended. She had gotten a reputation for letting boys feel her up, and I had gotten a reputation for ducking fights. Your reputation meant a lot with everything else around us crumbling for no good reason. The shorter the fall to earth, the more it hurt. We could not buy our way out of shame when Rita’s bribes were part of the shame and I relied on the interest-bearing backup of Randy’s fists. Rita and I held each other up amid the rubble.
We still walked to school together, like always, though the new architecture of our sprouting bodies threw awkward shadows over every word and gesture. Maybe we thought we were protecting each other, though if anything was protecting me, it was my older brother Randy’s reputation, hovering like a Rorschach cloud above me while the hoods studied it, trying to figure out how menacing it actually was.
Randy had clout in the unwritten toughness-grid of the street. No one would dare steal his car, despite its garish yellow blaring out from the drabness. Even the police watched out for it, it seemed, often cruising by our house, though perhaps that was just to keep an eye on Randy himself, who had earned his standing with a certain prowess with his fists in various historical street brawls before the appearance of the handgun. Not so much the appearance as the invasion of the handgun. It seemed like some Henry Ford of handguns was out there making sure they were affordable to every household in every hood, and every hood in every household. Randy had at least one gun now, keeping up with the times. He seemed almost shy or embarrassed when he showed it to me, like it was a secret pet or imaginary friend or weird sexual device. I guess part of him still believed it was cheating to have a gun, and that all disputes should be settled with fists—or at least knives and chains—some physical contact of some kind.
Jackson and Ashville. Greg leaned into Rita. Rita arched her back. October night chill. I glanced over and saw his hands under her shirt, their clumsy fluttering glance, unhooking, squeezing—whatever was going on under there was killing me. The unzipping of her jeans stung my eyeballs, and then her sigh, and his jeans, and his groan. He said something, and she laughed. Reluctant sponge, I absorbed it. I could not wring myself out or interrupt or sing doo-wop on the corner. It was a fire and a warmth that paralyzed. It was a toxic cocktail that made me thirsty. I should have fled, and even God doesn’t know why I didn’t. He was too busy playing poker in the back room at the K of C. He was running on hunches, he was pushing his luck, and he couldn’t be bothered.
You might wonder at how exposed they were, there on Pearl, one of the long, straight streets of Warren, where the curb crumbled toward the sewer grate—slow disintegration seemed to be the current method of urban renewal. Standards had deteriorated like the curbs so that only gunshots got anyone’s attention. In order to have a conversation with a neighbor, you had to shoot off a gun first to get their attention. Then, they’d shoot off their gun, and then maybe you didn’t need to have a conversation at all. Perhaps I exaggerate. In fact, I surely do exaggerate, for that is one of the useful skills of the short and fat, the ability to stretch the truth enough to keep from getting your ass kicked. My point is, teenage groping on a street corner wouldn’t cause any traffic jams. In fact, nothing could cause a traffic jam. The mass exodus to the further burbias by The Lucky Ones had already taken place years ago.
From where I stood, I could see through the vacant lots all the way to Hill Street—someone’s idea of a joke—to the kitchen light glowing in Greg’s house, attempting to keep away the death zombies.
Rita and I talked about the vacant houses as if we were evaluating race horses:
“The McLeod’s is going next.”
“No, I think the Seleski’s is on its last legs.”
Rita had a contagion theory and was always picking the house next to where they’d already torn one house down—and she was often right. The gaps now extended nearly to a half block on Rome and Bruce streets. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Disappearing dominoes. Me, I went with hunches. Wild guesses. I looked for secret signs. I listened for the sighs of ghosts. I was influenced by resentment and hatred for who had left us. I had burned one house down and had told no one. Rita had a vacant house next to hers where the Wysocki’s had lived. One moving truck, one day. That’s how they did it to avoid break-ins and grudge looting.
We hadn’t seen a For Sale sign for at least a couple of years. Houses were abandoned, given up to the city to dispose of—The City would threaten repossession. That was another neighborhood joke: take my house, please.
When the wrecking ball hit St. Barnabas, we all flinched just a little. The parish had to merge with St. Cletus, further away from Detroit, down at 10 Mile and Ryan, which enabled them to get rid of Father Frank, the holy molester, so it was a win-win. We stopped going to church at all, feeling abandoned by the diocese, feeling like they must be aligned with the Japanese in a grand conspiracy to destroy us.
Somehow, though, the K of C persisted with their liquor license and bingo and boilermakers. As long as you paid your dues, and our parents all paid their dues. If you didn’t know it was there, you could drive right past it, assuming it was another in the long line of tool and die shops that lined the major roads. Many of them were shuttered too, but since they had no shutters, or windows, you could only tell by the parking lots whether they were still alive. The Bella Mia Sauce Company, the Mafia front further down on Eight Mile, used the same strategy—just build a cinderblock bunker, and you could do whatever you wanted in there. They kept one truck out front for decorative purposes while the large black sedans parked around back. The joke was that they’d turned Jimmy Hoffa into spaghetti sauce, but it wasn’t a joke anyone laughed at.
When you’re standing on a street corner while your best friend and your other best friend go at it with deliberate abandon, erasing you entirely from the night’s blackboard, you have a lot of time to mull things over. To try to think of jokes that made you laugh and a landscape more inviting than the ruins of the moon. To think of a future that could still exist, not the one the carnies took down overnight leaving only the sting of piss and the thick odor of manure left by the stunted ponies and the mad goats from the petting zoo.
My point is, my point is. My point is that there was no point. No point at which Greg would come over to me and tap me on the shoulder and say, “Your turn,” as planned. His turn was on overtime. His turn had punched the clock out, strangled its hands. The plan had been aborted due to lust. Due to maybe some real affection I had been oblivious to. Part of me knew that I would never be getting a “turn” with Rita. I was feeling a new kind of shame, sharper and more painful—the shame of the third side of the triangle when he realizes he’s not connected to either of the other sides, that he’d only imagined those roads leaning into each other, that he was a separate point hovering in random space.
Greg was an easy-going guy who was both smart and good-looking but had the ambition of—well, he had no ambition whatsoever. He was an abandoned house to begin with, and now with his father dead, his soul was simply ash. What we shared was a love of the Stooges and the MC5 and the rough edge of any band from Detroit. When he was staying in our basement on an old couch, we’d spend hours down there dropping the needle on old vinyl and sucking down beers purchased for us by Randy who I think felt sorry for Greg—despite hating our own father, Greg did not hate the idea of fathers. He felt everyone should have one, even if only to hate.
Greg and I had heard about the Ray brothers—we called them twins, but they were not twins, Ted having been held back a year in third grade—“tag-teaming” Rita at the Kiddie Park, the desolate, dilapidated playground next to where St. Barnabas had been. The church once had a grade school that had closed five years earlier due to lack of enrollment and now housed a methadone clinic and soup kitchen. The last nun leaving the convent had forgotten to turn out the lights, and the church had taken their silver chalices and headed for the hills. Except we have no hills in Detroit, so they ended up down at St. Cletus. The nuns were either raised up in The Rapture or flew south like the geese were supposed to but no longer did.
I’m sorry to be making our streets so bleak. We had a sense of humor about it—Jackoff and Asshole—that I imagine was similar to that of young boys in Communist countries. We didn’t get the big picture, but the little picture didn’t look so good, and was getting worse, so why not make fun of it as if we had some control? Hee Hee. Ha Ha. Go fuck yourself and your mother too.
Jackoff and Asshole. I blew on my numb hands in that time-honored worthless gesture of the gloveless and clueless. I knew skin against skin could warm them up. I yanked my jean jacket tighter around me, which made me more aware of the loose flesh of my soft belly. At Metro Beach the previous summer, even my father had teased me about my tits. My mother shushed him. My father had the hard body of a factory worker, though he was currently working in the kitchen of a Hoss’s Steak House, having been laid off two years ago. Occasionally, he rustled up some steaks out the back door, and we asked no questions as we wolfed them down, the bloodier the better. Hoss himself had been dead twenty years—Hoss, a big guy who probably ate too many steaks. My father was hoping to get a job with the city picking up garbage—he had a connection on the inside. Their slogan was “Our Business is Always Picking Up!” and a truer slogan did not exist.
Greg and I had planned out the night, arranging to meet Rita under the streetlight at nine. We arrived first, watching Rita wade down against a thick wind scattering ticking leaves over the concrete. My heart jumped or whalloomped, or something—a thick rolling in my chest when I spotted her. I saw her every day, but not like this. My hopes and fears flickered like the damn streetlight.
I loved Rita, okay. From kindergarten on, she had always told me the truth. And I had kissed her under the awning of Bur-Lers, our local dollar store, during a summer rainstorm the year we were going into seventh grade. We had stolen bubble gum together and had nowhere to go. We chewed our gum and watched sheets of rain billow under the awnings toward us, splashing into pot holes in the parking lot. Our bare forearms touched as we leaned together away from it. I moved to kiss her. She took out her gum, so I took out mine. I kissed her. We threw our pink gum into the rain and laughed and kissed again.
Then we walked home and pretended it never happened. When you’re that age, you don’t classify anything as love. You classify by physical facts. And everything is a one-time occurrence until it happens again. Blame it on rain. Blame it on bubble gum.
Greg was a tall, thin spike in the air whose biggest claim to fame, up until his father’s death, was not playing basketball, despite the entreaties of both the principal and the coach, who themselves seemed desperate for some good news.
He was the first in our class to grow a moustache and didn’t want to shave it in order to play. It had already allowed him to purchase beer at a couple of places, but all the stores we could walk to were now on to him. He’d stand behind the bulletproof glass and when they’d ask him to put his ID on the revolving bulletproof carousel, he’d just shrug and walk out to the parking lot, where I’d be waiting.
He saw his future at age sixteen, when he could drive, as the buyer of alcohol for all cute girls. Those of us who could see beyond age eighteen simply dropped out of school. With no jobs left for our fathers, there was little hope for us. Someone had strangled the hands on time clocks everywhere, or stolen them and sold them for scrap.
Greg and I talked about turning the vacant lots into a marijuana farm. That’s how gone we were. We were trying to get through ninth grade math without once taking the textbook home. We had our priorities, our immediate goals. Rita’s mother worked at Bur-Lers and her father drove a fork lift for a trucking company down in Monroe, a huge, crazy commute. At least he didn’t move to Texas or Florida or Alaska or North Carolina where they were hiring random bodies and paying them less than they’d ever made before while asking them to risk limbs and sanity and self-worth, using them up, throwing them out, just like in the old days before unions brought some sanity to the proceedings.
Our father thought Randy was working for a lawn-care snow-removal company and studying to take the police academy test on the side. That’s how gone the old man was. Cooking all those steaks had messed with his judgment or something. Besides, the rest of us were still in school and provided plenty of distraction. Randy didn’t ask him for money and kept to himself during his brief appearances on the home front, so nobody asked him questions about cars or odd hours. The truth was that he had gone into business for himself, and he had done so well that he’d bought a Barracuda and attracted the interest of the local men in blue. So, there were some success stories in the neighborhood.
When my grandfather died, he left me two $100 savings bonds. Should I take my inheritance and invest in a handgun, a little equalizer against the street?
Jackson and Ashville. This night on the corner was not one of those stories of success. Are you still with me, blowing on your hands? Greg leaned into Rita. Rita arched her back. October night chill.
Greg did tap me on the shoulder, finally. I needed no tap, but pretended I did. But he didn’t say, “Your turn,” he said, “Let’s go.” He lit one of his father’s cigarettes—his inheritance. Half a carton, and Greg planned on smoking them all himself. He had a theory behind that, but he wasn’t sharing.
“What?” I asked under my breath.
“She don’t want you.”
“What?” I asked again.
“Rita,” he said, slightly agitated, as if I’d been confused about who, not what.
Jackson and Ashville. Jackoff and Asshole. No one was killed, but I’m stuck there worshipping at the shrine to memory loss that is our one and only miracle.
I ran to catch up with Rita, who had turned back up the street toward her house, the wind behind her now.
“Rita,” I said, falling into step with her like I did each morning. But it was not morning, so where were we headed?
“Tommy,” she said. Three people on earth still called me Tommy, and she was one of them.
“I thought, maybe…”
“What about the Ray twins?”
“Tommy. They tried to rape me.”
I let out a long stream of steamy breath. A lot of things slipped by in our neighborhood, but not rape.
“You didn’t call the cops?”
We were suddenly in front of her house, and I wasn’t nearly ready to leave her.
“I fought them off. I ran,” she said. “What could I prove?”
“We could kick their asses for you,” I said. I knew she loved me, for she did not laugh at that. She touched my face, and everything inside me tightened.
“Tommy, I said yes to Greg so I could say no to you.” Each time she said my name, I flinched. I didn’t believe or understand her logic. “Didn’t look like you were faking it,” I said.
“I didn’t say I was faking it,” she said. We were fifteen, all of us. How soon before our houses fell in on themselves? Hunger and shame are cousins, and their parents want you to call them aunt and uncle. I wanted to run to catch up with Greg. Was he going home to turn off that kitchen light?
Rita turned and walked up the stoop to her dark house and the sensor turned on the floodlight. She slipped her key in the lock and disappeared inside. The floodlight clicked off, and for a moment all was dark. Then, through the thin curtains, through the thick, barred windows, a light came on strong and bright.