When I called, I told them I was in some manner of trouble.
‘June,’ I heard Father call over his shoulder to Mom once the phone clicked over after the tenth ring. ‘She’s gotten herself laid up in some sort of mess.’
In the background, I could hear barking and the slam of the screen door as Mom shooed the dog out of the house and onto the porch.
‘Well, I’ll tell you the one thing my father told me. “Just get out of there before they break you down,”’ Father said. Then he hung up the phone.
The houses we set out to destroy had already been inscribed by the city. The city had earmarked them as tear-downs during the first stage of a larger urban planning initiative – a large ‘D’ for Demolition had been written in white chalk on the front doors of the dilapidated multi-family structures, veterans of a time when Detroit was still a factory town, a place where the music of Motown fumed larger than the gusts of exhaust unleashed from the chains of cars which tumbled off the assembly lines at the auto factories and straight onto those glistening American freeways. The electric streetcar line along Woodward Avenue had been replaced by gas-powered buses. There’d been the great race wars. Even still, at the time those houses had been erected on that tender Northern riverbed which skirted the Canada border, the word future seemed more a promise than an urgency. Now the houses were left empty in the last generation’s suburban flight and the city had stopped short of actually demolishing them due to a last-minute budget cut enacted by the city council. ‘Nearsighted assholes,’ I remember our movement leader, Tom, commenting during his speech at the Operation Orange pep rally held on the morning of my first day in Detroit. ‘Can’t see past their own noses, over the fence and into their neighbours’ yards.’ The short, dowdy woman beside me in oversized brown corduroys and a neon green sports bra nodded vigorously. She’d been with the movement for three months already. She knew all the appropriate slogans after which to cheer or to nod.
It was hard to say how I’d ended up there nodding along with her. I’d found myself in Detroit after college with a set of friends, or would-be friends, set out to gather our courage in the world before the timer on our loans clicked on. We’d joined Operation Orange, a demolition team set out to bulldoze abandoned houses which the city had deemed untenable, hazardous to children, and yet had failed to tear down. The team, I was told, was part of a grassroots movement to spread urban renewal, to revitalize the poor neighbourhoods which the city had neglected and to make them a safer place for kids.
People in the movement talked a lot about invisible fences. ‘When you see one,’ Tom once told me, ‘The important thing is to plough through.’
The movement, I found, was full of two types of people: people who said our slogan should be ‘Keep kids off the street’ and those who preferred ‘Take back the street, bring Detroit home again.’ It happened that these two slogans formed the basis of the two groups within the movement. The first wave of workers spray-painted the front of the houses with a bright orange ‘D’ signalling the second wave of workers, the take-back-the-street people who drove the wrecking balls.
For a brief period when I’d first arrived in Detroit, I’d been misassigned to the take-back-the-street team. After listening to Tom’s speech at the rally, I was afraid to indicate on my application that, technically, I am slightly nearsighted. Without my glasses, I have trouble making out things in the distance. To drive the wrecking ball, I figured I’d wear the goggles and squint.
The first morning of my preliminary demolition assignment, I accidentally took out the Wash-N-Go next to Star Farm, the assisted-living establishment which houses a significant portion of Detroit’s elderly. The Wash-N-Go was located just across the street from my target, an abandoned aviation factory which used to manufacture airplane equipment but was now crumbling after a thirty-year vacancy. Apparently, I’d misjudged my force and over-swung; the wrecking ball crashed through the window of the Wash-N-Go, destroying a row of Therma-Loft dryers and puncturing a major water vein.
When the dust cleared and I realized my mistake, I removed my goggles and climbed out of the cab to assess the damage. My first thought was to examine the wrecking ball itself to make sure I hadn’t taken out any bodies. To my relief, the only thing clinging to the ball was a pair of white cotton underwear, Fruit of the Loom, size XXL. The underwear looked like they belonged to an old man who was incontinent.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Tom reassured me the evening after the crash. ‘You don’t lack vision. You just lack the ability to calculate depth.’
The next day I was reassigned to the take-back-the-streets team.
The workers from the movement lived in a deserted cotton mill on the outskirts of the city. Sometimes in the early morning when I got back to the mill after spray-painting houses, if no one else from the movement was around, I’d put on the underwear over my clothes and sit around the loft. Ever since I’d been young, whenever I’d done something to slight another, my mother used to say, ‘Put yourself in their shoes.’
For a while, the briefs were too big. I had to double them over at the waist and fasten them with a safety pin. However, this changed rather quickly; my second week in Detroit, I took a day job at a bakery as an assistant pastry chef. Most of my work with the movement took place at night and, though I had little to no experience in the kitchen, I had little no experience in most things in life. I’d minored in art in college and the head pastry chef at the bakery thought I had some interesting ideas about new-wave cake decoration. He was looking to increase clientele by introducing fine art confections. He thought my sketches for a fall line of seasonal cakes – a mixture of Italian Futurism and Pop Art – might have the chops to attract the bougie suburban set.
After several months of working at the bakery, where I took most of my meals as the job itself was minimum wage and the movement was volunteer-only, the briefs began to fit rather snugly. By the time I got the inkling to leave Detroit, I only had to reach down for the occasional tug at the band. Otherwise, the briefs stayed up of their own accord.
Once I hung up with my father that afternoon at the station, I made my way to Gate 47 to wait for the bus. In the corridor of the station, I ran into a flock of kids I’d come to know. One of the guys worked at the Cream-N-Cone where a bunch of us who were involved in the movement used to get ice cream after a night on the job. The Cream-N-Cone was the only establishment on that side of town which was open past midnight.
The kid was sitting on the floor with his back hunched against the wall lining the narrow depot corridor along with a pack of other joiners. I recognized several faces as early defectors from the movement. They’d quit after the second week on the job when they’d realized we weren’t planning on integrating explosives into the initiative. They were the sort of kids who joined just to be joiners, to shake up establishment, but quickly got fed up with the internal bureaucracy of the movement itself. I’d had a scuffle with one of them his first night on the job. On our way back to the mill after a routine assignment, he’d wanted to spray-paint the downtown Investment Bank that handled most of Detroit’s big rollers. Word on the street was the bank only handled seven-figure accounts. ‘Imagine the ceiling on a place like that, if seven figures is the floor,’ the kid said, pulling into the parking lot across from the bank. We’d let him drive since he claimed to know the back roads of that part of town.
The whole carload of us spent the better part of an hour trying to talk him down from the plan. But, the kid wouldn’t listen to reason. In the end, it took two of us to tackle him, one to pin him down and the other to steal the keys. ‘If you want to start up some vigilante bullshit,’ I’d called out to him through the window as the car peeled away, ‘you can take-back-the-streets in some other shit-toothed town.’
The next day the whole lot of them defected. It was said they’d taken up in a warehouse on the east side. They were starting their own movement and had convinced a few of our less decided members to come along. Word on the street was they were starting an Opportunity Bank. Their exchange rate was two opportunities to every dollar. (They claimed to be giving the less fortunate a break.) Problem was, people started trading food stamps for opportunity tickets, figuring real opportunity was too good to pass up.
One afternoon while I was working at the bakery a homeless guy came in and tried to buy a roll with a ticket he’d purchased at the Opportunity Bank.
‘How much will this get me?’ he asked, placing the crumpled paper on the counter. The ticket was the sort of small blue slip of paper which might buy a round of Skeeball at an arcade or ride at a carnival. On the back, I could make out the faded outline of a chart which listed the exchange rate for various denominations of opportunity. For every ten opportunities, you moved up a ranking in fortune. Those members with one hundred or more opportunities were Truly Fortunate.
I wondered what each ranking bought you. On the bottom of the ticket there was a central address. ‘I drove by headquarters on the bus one night when an old lady slipped me a swipe,’ the man said. ‘It was raining that night so I decided to stay on and just watch the city go by till the sun came up and the warmth came out. The whole place looked a pawn shop. Bunch of scrap metal hitched up around a few two-by-fours. And a line out the door to beat the food kitchen. Skinny kids, big mamas with arms full of little ones and every veteran east of the Mississippi. None of them looked rich yet, but what do I know. I guess they hadn’t gone in and come out yet. I guess they were still waiting for opportunity to mark them. How many times have you seen a truly fortunate go hungry. They’re so rich, they don’t even need food. The weight just clings to them.’
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ my boss, Eli, told the old man. ‘But we don’t accept opportunity here.’
The old man grumbled, hobbling toward the doorway. As he stepped out onto the sidewalk, Eli called to him. ‘If you want to sift through the day-olds, I don’t believe the food bank’s been by yet to collect the leftovers this morning. We keep them next to the dumpster out back.’
I watched the old man pick through the garbage bag full of day-olds and stuff several of my Warhol Whoopie Pies into his sack.
Now as I made my way down the dimly lit corridor of the bus station, I doubted the kids recognized me. Since starting with the movement, I’d put on thirty pounds. The only clothing which now fit me was a pair of men’s overalls that I had found in my roommate’s closet after he deserted for a girl he’d met in a bar. My hair, which had a natural predisposition to curling, had taken on the form of a bird’s nest and was matted into a large ball at the back of my neck. As I made my way past them, I suddenly realized that I too might look homeless, my backpack rattling with the cans of empty spray-paint which I’d used up earlier that night.
‘What yah got in the bag?’ one of the boys in a frayed leather jacket called out to me as I stepped over him. As I looked down at the shadowed face under his baseball cap, I thought I recognized him as one of the early defectors.
‘Just a bunch of empties,’ I said stepping over his outstretched legs.
From the way he eyed my backpack as I placed it under the bench where I sat in front of my gate, I could tell he didn’t believe me. Maybe he mistook the rattling for cans of beer.
I’d been up all night spray-painting the final houses on our route and chasing away a pack of stray dogs. The dogs had taken to following us from house to house around the city. People said they got high off the fumes. Sometimes, when they got giddy, they would howl and rub themselves up against the newly painted wood.
The bus was not due into the gate for an hour. While I waited, I fell asleep next to an old woman in a ragged fur coat who was reading a romance novel, a drugstore paperback which featured a woman in a low-cut pink dress on the front. When I awoke, I found the old woman had also drifted off, her hands gently folded over the paperback’s deeply worn cover, my head drooped so that it was resting partway on her shoulder, the nest at the back of my head wedded with the matted fur of her coat like one those dogs flagellating against the wood.
It wasn’t until the bus was pulling out of the station that I realized my backpack was missing. I must have forgotten it in the station under the bench. Perhaps, I thought, someone will find my address on the label and mail it back.
When the bus arrived in Ann Arbor, Father was waiting for me at the station. His old Ford pickup shuttered silently at the far end of the lot. It was raining and as he swung the passenger door open for me, I realized that along with putting on a few pounds over the course of the summer, the lines in my hands had been dyed a permanent orange from the paint.
‘That’s some illness,’ Father said once we were on the highway, laughing nervously and looking down at my hands. Under the street lights which lined the highway, my hands glowed the colour of the cones used to mark off lanes under construction.
That night I slept in the twin bed from my childhood, the one with the comforter and dust ruffle which were made out of the sort of lace my mother’d always called eyelet. A thin layer of dust had gathered over the comforter, so that when I threw back the sheets a cloud of dirt billowed up from the bed the way dust rises up from the road when a car gets going too fast.
As I was getting undressed, Mother peeked her head through the doorway. She was wearing the robe that Father had bought her for her fiftieth birthday. Since menopause, the robe was the only article of clothing that she wore around the house. It was the type of thing she could easily take off and put on again, in case of a flash. ‘I need things I can toss,’ she once said.
Mom reached forward to wrap her arms around my ample girth. She got this soft look on her face and reached for the strap of my overalls. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘You know, if you want, I can help you get out of this.’
I shook my head, but she insisted. She unbuckled the straps and helped me into an old flannel nightgown which I had found in the bottom drawer of the dresser. As she turned to leave, she drew me toward her shoulders. ‘Goodnight, Trouble,’ she said. From beneath her bathrobe, her body felt like an oven. I could smell the salt from the line of perspiration which had begun to form at the nape of her neck.
The next morning I rose early, donned my overalls and took Father’s truck out to pick up a coffee and doughnuts. During my time in Detroit at the bakery, I’d gotten used to soaking up my morning brew with a thick slab of something sweet and fried. While searching through the drawer in the kitchen where my parents kept their loose change, I noticed an opportunity ticket wedged under the checkbooks at the back of the drawer.
‘What’s this?’ I asked my mother, holding up the thin blue strip of paper.
‘Must be something they were handing out at the mall,’ Mother said sheepishly. ‘You know, one of those promotionals. There’s so many of those things these days, I hardly know what I’m walking away with.’
At the doughnut shop, I decided to bring an extra box home with me. Something in the house felt thin that morning and I wanted to fill it. As I made my way back through town, I noticed a new development going up several miles outside of town just across the train tracks from my parents’ neighbourhood. Through the trees I recognized the familiar pattern of three-storey gambrels and colonials rising up from the newly cleared land. The pattern recalled the development scheme of my parents’ own neighbourhood except on a larger scale. Most of these homes had four-car garages and several boasted individual backhouses for guests.
As I pulled into my parents’ neighbourhood, I noticed that over the years the trees had grown in around the houses and what was once luxury now boasted the quiet familiarity of an ageing country road. A string of homes on our block had changed hands in rapid succession; there was talk of zoning violations, strangers and upkeep. Several members of the community walked their dogs without picking up the droppings and there was talk of coyotes having taken up lodging in the brush behind the street.
Mother was sitting in her robe in the kitchen polishing an old wicker basket. I put the box of doughnuts squarely on the table and took two out of the box. Dad took a pair of Boston Creams to the living room. Mom puzzled over an éclair.
In the morning light, I saw that my parents were a shade older. During my absence they had grown into themselves, become settled in new ways. Mother was nursing a permanent cramp in her shoulder which she politely referred to as ‘my little freeze’. The freeze restricted her movement. She could only lift her left arm several inches above her waist so that, when she went to pour, she had to balance the coffee pot on the side of the table where she could unleash some liquid into her cup by simply tilting down the spout. In the living room, Father sat quietly in front of the television, watching a golf game, occasionally mouthing the score.
The house too felt lived in. The kitchen cabinets were no longer herringbone white but slightly yellowed and chipping. The door to the cabinet which housed the trash where the dog liked to nose around for table scraps was mildewed in the spots where the dampness of the dog’s saliva had seeped into the wood. In the dog, I thought I detected a limp. He’d had a slight stroke which had paralysed parts of the left side of his body. His left lid hung in a permanent droop so that when you approached him suddenly from certain angles he growled in surprise and ran in several tight circles as though looking for the source of attack.
That afternoon my sister Miriam drove down with her daughter, Lacey, as a sort of homecoming. We all sat and watched the end of the golf tournament. The three of us piled on the old wingback sofa with the faded red tartan that had thinned so that in places the batting came out in small tufts. Father sat up close to the television in his straight-backed chair.
It was the eighth hole of the PGA tournament. Tiger was two strokes in on a par four. He made a long shot from deep on the edge of the green where the turf met the forest. Through the hush of the crowd came the single clink of the ball as it connected with the bottom of the hole. The crowd erupted onto their feet.
‘Birdie,’ Father called out from his chair.
‘Birdie,’ echoed Lacey, bouncing up and down on the cushions.
‘Birdie,’ she cried out again, jumping off the couch and running to the window.
The dog began barking and pacing in front of the window where Lacey was jumping, pointing up into the birch trees which lined the end of the yard.
‘Sit down, Lacey,’ Father called, while simultaneously batting at the dog with the back of his hand.
As the dog plopped down next to the window, his neck still craned in the direction of the brush, Father scooped Lacey up into his lap and jostled her around on his knee. There were several hard knocks on the floor coming from the basement. Mom kept an old red broom next to the dryer so that she could knock when the laundry was folded to signal Father to come down and carry it up the flight of stairs. ‘What’s all the commotion?’ she called from the stairwell.
‘Lacey’s just calling the tournament,’ Father chuckled as he slowly made his way down the stairs.
‘I’ll go,’ I said, slithering out from under the weight of Miriam’s feet.
‘That’s all right, Sport,’ he said. ‘You’d be hard pressed to do any heavy lifting, what with your condition.’
‘What condition is that?’ Miriam said, wiggling her toes in my lap, when Father had left the room.
I looked down at the orange lines in my hands. ‘Got me,’ I said.
By the end of the summer, the city was fed up with our antics. Patrol cars often circled our barracks at the cotton mill. It was said that several undercover agents had permeated the movement. The pressure was on to try to sniff out the rat. In the meantime, we had taken to hiding the wrecking balls in an old garage on the outskirts of the city. The garage was run by a Vietnam vet who was out to fuck the system with the same gentle flogging with which he felt the system had fucked him. He helped us out by storing our wrecking balls in the old carriage house which had once served as his garage and now housed his fledgling cabinetry business.
The last night of the movement, the five of us climbed into Tom’s old Monte Carlo which was idling just off I-75. We ran up the Caniff/Holbrook exit and onto the shoulder of the highway where the car was waiting. As Tom gunned it down the highway, he called in the address to the keep-kids-off-the-street team back at the carriage house to let them know to get the wrecking ball running. In the rear-view mirror, the three-storey house which we had just sprayed towered over the off ramp. The thick orange paint had begun to reflect onto the highway behind us in the first glints of morning sun.
Under the increased scrutiny from the fuzz, we had begun to choose our targets based on their accessibility from the highway. Sometimes we’d drive the highways in the daylight, surveying our progress, how many orange homes were still standing, how many the keep-the-kids-off-the-street team had reduced to rubble. Looking down from the highway with a bird’s-eye view, I remember thinking that the bright orange houses had begun to make the city look like a game board, the ‘problem neighbourhoods’ lucky spots on which to land.
In the thin morning light, driving down I-75, even the wreckage sites where the houses had been demolished into what looked like thick piles of orange driftwood took on a unique aperture, their own subtle grace.
That final night, Tom was antsy. The city council had called in the Feds. We had been directed to go home to man our respective televisions and watch the fallout, to wait and see what structures the city might amass in our wake.
High on fumes and adrenaline, we pissed our way through a case of beer before we were halfway down I-75.
As the lights from the highway began to fade, through our drunkenness we could tell that Detroit was now some place in back of us. We had left the city behind.
Grand houses lined the quiet streets which surrounded us. Expensive new developments boasted houses which, through the fog of the windshield, looked remarkably like yachts floating in the soft incandescence of the street lights.
‘Where are we?’ someone called out from the back of the car.
‘Oakland Country,’ Tom said.
We ditched the car at the end of a deserted cul-de-sac on the outskirts of the development and headed toward a towering three-storey Colonial where it was rumoured that one of the members of the city council lived.
Under Tom’s direction, we managed to spray most of the front of the house before we heard the sound of the sirens and took off, dispersing widely in every direction.
By the time the fuzz was on to us, I had used up all but one of the cans of paint in my bag.
As I ran through the thick brush that skirted the cul-de-sac, I looked back over my shoulder. In the moonlight, illuminated by the soft strobes of the cruisers, the house looked like the entrance to some sort of theme park, a place where a family might stop to take a picture under the lights.
That night at dinner, Mom put on a feast. I ate like I hadn’t seen food since I’d left home five years ago.
‘Why does she get more than the rest of us?’ Lacey asked, pointing to the steaming white mountain in my bowl.
‘June is feeding her new little trouble,’ Mother said, patting her stomach.
Miriam lowered her eyes. Dad stared straight ahead.
‘Mom,’ I said, pushing my chair out from the table, my heavy girth in my lap. ‘It’s not that sort of trouble, the trouble I’m in.’
‘Whatever it is, it appears it’s in deep enough,’ joked Father, buttering his bread.
As I made my way upstairs later that evening, I felt the growing pains of indigestion, a small trail of acid making its way up my esophagus until it burned the back of my throat.
The room to my door was ajar. From the end of the hallway I could tell that the kerosene lamp on the nightstand had been lit.
I entered the bedroom and heard a faint clicking. On the ceiling over my bed, Mother had erected my old mobile. Though it no longer played a tune, I could hear the familiar click of the plastic barnyard animals as they rotated.
In the corner of the room sat the wicker basket which Mother had been polishing. The basket once served as my cradle when my parents were just starting out. It was lined in a soft pink cloth. In it, the rag doll from my childhood sat propped up on a pillow, one arm dangling from a thread.
When Mom peered into the door, she appeared nearly glowing.
‘Mom,’ I said taking her hand. ‘You know I’m not aiming to litter.’
I don’t think she heard me. Her eyes were already closed as she began stroking my head.
By the time I fell sleep, she was on the second reprise of ‘My Bonnie Lay Over the Ocean’, stroking the edge of my hairline, trying to bring back whatever it was she thought had receded.
The first crash registered just after midnight. I had been dreaming I was lost in a jungle. Outside, it sounded as though we were being surrounded by a swarm of mosquitoes – that angry, heliotropic buzz. It was not until I heard the third window break that I realized they were throwing the empty spray cans at the house and the sound of mosquitoes evaporated into the thin hiss of paint.
Mom ran into the yard in her bathrobe. Father and his dog were close behind.
By the time I got into my overalls and out onto lawn, the defectors were running up the road. From the back, they looked like a herd of deer that had scared in a bunch of directions after a gun had gone off. They say deer are nearly blind, they pretty much just run on sound and intuition. The cops were pulling into the drive, the thick red of their sirens bathing our house with the rotating glare of their lights. Several of them fanned out into the bushes with their searchlights and nightsticks.
In the confusion of the sirens, a whippoorwill flew into my window and skidded down the pane until it got caught on the sill and began to struggle in a puddle of orange paint where their spray had dripped and collected.
‘Birdie,’ cried Lacey, pointing up at the window.
Beside her, the dog ran in circles.
‘Birdie,’ I said, collapsing next to the empty backpack discarded at the base of the driveway next to a small, orange ‘D’ painted on the grass. Mine.
Photograph courtesy of stopthegears