Two pairs of underwear. A plain white T-shirt. Two pairs of socks rolled up into balls. I stuffed these items into a pillowcase. I’d had enough of that bitch, Anne Marie, my aunt, who was three-and-a-half years older than me. Since she and my grandmother had moved out of the yellow brick house, away from Gus—who was her father and my grandfather—and into the apartment above the one I lived in with my mother and my new dad, Anne Marie tormented me mercilessly. She would tease me, beat me up, and make fun of me in front of the other kids in the neighborhood.
Wax army men—two different colors so I could fight them against each other. Pad of paper to draw pictures in. Pencils. Pencil sharpener. I felt humiliated. I’d written a wish on a piece of paper and put it into a box on my grandmother’s coffee table. I was spending the afternoon with Anne Marie and my grandmother because my mom and dad went somewhere. So I sat there pretending that if I sat on the couch by the window for long enough, then the wish that I’d written on a piece of paper would come true, and I’d become a super hero. As a super hero, I could do many things. I would be able to fly. I would be able to shoot laser-beams out of my eyes. I’d be able to breathe fire. I’d be able to kick Anne Marie’s ass.
Detroit Tiger’s away-cap with the bright orange “D” that my Uncle Rick had given me for my birthday. Hand-held digital football game, the kind where the players were blinking dots of light. Stuffed bunny rabbit, the skinny one with the lanky limbs and ears and the silly grin on its face. My grandmother took a nap after she made me and Anne Marie lunch. Anne Marie sat listening to the radio and tanning out on the apartment’s front patio overlooking the street. She walked into the living room where I sat. She had this sixth sense when it came to humiliating me and putting me on the spot.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Whatever,” she said. She started looking around. She reached her arm down to the coffee table and grabbed the pen that I’d used earlier to write my wish. I’d tried to ignore Anne Marie, but I could tell that she knew I was nervous. She knew that she’d put me on the spot. She walked to the television set and changed the channel.
“What are you watching?”
“Nothing,” I said. I wished that she’d leave and go back outside on the front patio. She sat down on the chair beside the couch where I sat, and she picked up a television guide off the floor next to the chair. She flipped through the pages then dropped the book on the floor where she’d found it. She leaned forward and opened the lid to the box.
I sprung from the couch and lunged toward the box. Anne Marie plucked the folded piece of paper out before I could grab it.
“What’s this?” she asked then fell backwards into her chair. She started to unfold the little piece of paper.
“Gimme that,” I said. “It’s mine!”
“Finders keepers,” she said, and as I grabbed at the little piece of paper, she stood up and pushed me backward onto the couch. Her wretched demon fingers continued to unfold the piece of paper as she walked back toward the patio. I ran from the couch and tried to grab it, but she held it above her head, just out of reach.
“Give it to me!”
“Michael, shut up,” she said. “If you wake up Ma, you’ll get in trouble.” I jumped and grabbed the piece of paper away from her.
“Ha,” I said, and I tore the piece of paper up into a dozen pieces, but I was too late.
“I don’t care,” she said, laughing. “I don’t need it anymore.” She walked outside onto the patio. Across the street, neighborhood children played, her friends and my friends.
“Hey everyone,” she yelled from the patio. I listened helplessly from the living room. “Michael wants to be a super hero.” The wretched sound of children laughing.
I walked into the kitchen, and Anne Marie followed.
“Where are you going?” I didn’t answer. I wanted to kill her.
“You’re supposed to stay up here until your parents get home,” she said. “You’re gonna get in trouble if you go downstairs.”
I didn’t care. I turned my back on her and walked out the door to the back hallway and walked downstairs to my parents’ apartment then to my bedroom. I pulled my pillowcase off my pillow and started packing. Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Tape recorder I got for Christmas. Blank tapes. Plastic gun. I didn’t care about getting in trouble. All I wanted was the right to be angry. All of my other family members got angry all the time—got angry, yelled, complained, swore, scowled, sneered, guilt-tripped, and played the silent treatment, but I wasn’t allowed to do any of that. Anne Marie had spent her life refining the art of terrorizing me. She would get me in trouble, humiliate me, and hit me, and when I finally would react, my mother and aunts and grandparents disapproved of such rage in their little baby boy. That’s why I wanted to be a super hero—so that I could fly away. Since Anne Marie sabotaged that dream for me, I decided to run away forever. I decided to run away to my great-grandmother’s house. Nunie.
I pulled out a piece of paper and a dull pencil from my pillowcase of worldly belongings, wrote a note to my parents, and left it on my naked pillow. The note read: “Goodbye. I’m running away to Nunie’s house. Forever.”
As I left, I walked over to where Bucky cowered in the kitchen, a plastic bag full of garbage tied around his neck. Bucky had gotten into the thrash earlier that morning, like he did every morning. He was a horrible dog. He’d steal food off of the table. He pooped everyday in the house and peed on the legs of every table. The apartment constantly smelled like pee and poop, and I had to clean it up. Everyday, I had to clean up dogshit, and I had to take shit from Anne Marie.
“Hey, boy,” I said to Bucky, who was chewing one of my mother’s shoes, a red leather shoe. Though Bucky was a horrible dog, he was my best friend, and I loved him. I was sad to leave him, but I had to do what I had to do. I kneeled next to him and petted his head. He stopped chewing the shoe and sniffed my hand for a second then resumed chewing the shoe. I took the mangled shoe out of his mouth and put it on the kitchen table. Bucky sat up at attention and tripped forward over the garbage bag hanging around his neck. I bent down to kiss him but then reared back from the stench.
“Goodbye, Bucky,” I said, trying to be brave. He looked at me with sad eyes and wagged his tail. I had to turn away. I walked out of the back door and through the backyard to the alley, where Anne Marie couldn’t see me escape. I crossed Peoria Street and continued west down the alley until I hit Gratiot, which was packed with Saturday afternoon traffic. The sun shone brightly and glinted off of fenders and windshields. I turned left and walked down Gratiot toward downtown. The distant buildings and light smog on the horizon made the downtown look like a small painting of watercolor grays graduating dirty into the blue sky overhead.
Carrying a pillowcase stuffed with my possessions, I walked past liquor stores and bars. I walked over the crumbling sidewalks and past the completely crumbled men and women who sat on the ground against steel-bar covered storefronts with their heads between their knees, their eyes barely discernable through yellow glaze.
A homeless drunk sat on the ground, looking at me, another beggar waiting by bars and liquor stores for pity and charity, two things that were scarce in the city of brotherly hate. Gus complained about them even though his future didn’t look any brighter.
“Yeah, you,” the bum said. He pointed one of his shaking fingers at me. With his other hand, he clutched a bottle in a brown paper sack.
“What up,” I said cautiously, startled, and took a step away from him and toward the street. I knew at the age of eight that if someone I didn’t know started talking to me for any reason, even saying “hello” while passing me on the street, then that person was about to either ask me for something or take something from me. I looked around and quickly surveyed my surroundings in case I needed a safe place to run. I saw a liquor store on the street corner ahead of me. I could run in there.
“Hey, kid,” the bum said. “C’mere.”
“Naw,” I said. I started to walk.
“I ain’t gonna hurt you,” he said.
“Whadda you want?”
“Spare some change for an old man?”
“I ain’t got no money,” I said.
He leaned forward and lazily reached out for me. I dodged him and ran until I got to the door of the corner liquor store, and then I turned around. The old bum was talking to someone else. I crossed the street to the next block and continued walking south down Gratiot towards Young, the street that Nunie lived on. I walked, swinging my pillowcase like an oversized pocketwatch. I walked past Assumption Grotto Catholic Church and old graveyard with moss covered headstones and marble tombs above the ground.
I crossed 6-and-a-half, leaving the colossal stone church and ancient graveyard behind me. I only had about five or six blocks until I reached Young, where Nunie lived. I just knew that when I told her how I couldn’t live anymore with Anne Marie’s meanness and jealousy, she would let me live with her, and she’d be happy because I was her favorite grandchild. I walked and watched the sidewalk pass under my feet. While I watched the scarred and pocked pavement, I bounced my eyes off of tar patches and dried gum and glass shards. I intentionally stepped on every crack and every line, singing lightly under my breath:
Step on a crack, break Anne Marie’s back.
Step on a line, break Anne Marie’s spine.
When I lifted my head and looked up to cross the next street, I glanced to my right at a cluster of cars and trucks heading north along Gratiot and immediately recognized my mother’s brown mustang. I immediately recognized my mother’s finger pointing out of the passenger’s side window at me. I immediately recognized her voice yell, “Michael Constantine!” I could see my new dad driving the car. I saw him glance back at the traffic behind him then turn the steering wheel in large loops, swerving across the street and pulling up to the curb next to where I walked. He grabbed my mother’s hand and leaned over her lap to talk out of the passenger’s side window.
“Mike,” he said. “Where are you going?”
“I’m running away.”
“You’re doing what?” my mother yelled.
“I got this, Pam,” my new dad said to my mom, and she stared at the dashboard. “What’s wrong, Mike?”
“I hate Anne Marie,” I yelled. My eyes started to tear. “I’m running away to Nunie’s so I don’t ever have to see her again.” My mother started to speak, but my new dad interrupted her.
“That’s fine, Mike,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. I need to drop your mom off at the house, but why don’t you get in so that I can give you a ride to Nunie’s house. The streets aren’t too safe over here.” I couldn’t argue with that logic. I looked up the street, and I saw about a block away a group of older kids walking in my direction. One carried a baseball bat. Another kept stopping to hit rocks across Gratiot with a golf club.
“Okay,” I said. My mother scooted her seat forward so that I could climb into the back. When we drove up to the house on Glenwood, my worried grandmother was pacing nervously up and down the street. Anne Marie and some other children from the neighborhood ran across the street and up to the car.
“Thank god,” Anne Marie said, as she looked into the car. She waved her arms toward some children about a half a block away who were looking through large hedges and peeking into backyards. “We found him,” she yelled.
“Go on, Pam,” my Dad said. “We’re going for a ride. Get up front with me, Mike.” My mother got out of the car and walked toward my grandmother, who was now sitting on the front porch of the duplex that all of us lived in. She was smoking a cigarette and shaking her head.
“What did you think you were doing?” Anne Marie asked me in that
“yell-at-me, talk-down-to-me, manipulate-me-through-fear-and-guilt” tone of voice. I didn’t respond. I slammed the car door as she approached, and my dad drove east on Glenwood then turned north on Chalmers, left on 7 Mile, right on Gratiot, then west on 8 Mile.
“I thought we were going to Nunie’s,” I said. We were miles away from Nunie’s street, miles away from where he and my mother had picked me up twenty minutes earlier.
“We are,” he said. “But I’m kinda hungry. Do you mind if we stop first and eat? I’ll buy you a hamburger—that way, Nunie won’t have to cook for you. What do you say?” I thought for a second, but I couldn’t resist. I was already the fat kid in the neighborhood and in school. He knew that food was my weakness.
“Sure,” I said, already starting to feel better.
“So why are you running away?” he asked, and I immediately turned sour again.
“I hate Anne. She’s always mean to me, and I don’t want to live with her anymore.”
My dad drove, thinking about what I’d just said, and the words that I’d spoken didn’t shed any light on the truth that glared obviously at everybody in the family: Anne Marie had inherited the anger from the parents that had raised her, and she took it all out on me. During every day of her life, she’d watched Gus come home drunk to bully, heckle, and slap around her mother, and since I was smaller and weaker than Anne Marie, and because I was immediately accessible because I lived with or near her my entire life, she’d recycle her fear and lash me with her anger.
“So you’re running away to Nunie’s house?”
“Well, Michael,” my dad said. “Nunie may be your great-grandmother, but she’s also Anne’s grandmother.”
“I know,” I said.
“What are you going to do when Baba and Anne Marie visit Nunie? Won’t you have to see her then?”
“I’ll go over to Caroline and Rick’s house.”
“What if they visit there too in the same day?”
“Then I’ll come visit you and Mom,” I said. “That way, I won’t have to see her ugly face ‘cause she’ll be over at Nunie’s or Caroline and Rick’s.”
“You’ve got a point,” he said, and he turned the steering wheel of the mustang, driving us into the parking lot of a diner. “C’mon,” he said, opening his door. “This is my favorite place to eat hamburgers.” I followed him inside. Nobody other than the cook was in the restaurant. The booths were empty. The counter was clean. We sat down on stools in front of the counter.
“We’ll take four to go,” my dad said then he looked at me. “You can eat two, can’t you?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, excitedly. I could have eaten about five.
“Make them to go,” he said to the cook. The cook slapped four patties on the hot grill that stretched along the back wall. Steam rose from the patties, followed by the sound of sizzling flesh. The cook covered the meat with a metal lid. He was a large man, covered with hair and wearing a tank top, his forearms covered with tattoos. He turned to us and wiped his hands on his blood-and-grease stained apron.
“Fries?” he asked us.
“Sure, one large order, and make all of it to go,” my dad said, then he turned to me. “We can split it. One large order’s a lot of fries.”
“Okay,” I said. “Are we going to eat this over at Nunie’s?”
“No,” he said. “I’m going to take you someplace special first.”
A moment later, the cook set two grease-stained bags of food on the counter in front of us. The French fries still sizzled, and I opened the bag with the hamburgers and took a deep breath of mustard and fried meat and onions. My dad paid the cook; we got back into the car and turned onto 8 Mile, soon pulling into a parking lot across the street, right next to a furniture store. My dad parked alongside the building, and we got out of the car. He led me down the alley behind that building, and we entered a door to a smoky bar.
“Bob brought me here for my first beer,” he said. Bob was his dad.
“Oh,” I said. I looked around. The place was much like a bar that Gus had taken me to a few months earlier, except for this one was in a safer neighborhood, and we didn’t have to knock on the door and wait for someone to let us in.
It was a warm day, and the bartender had opened the windows and doors to the outside so that the breeze could blow out the stale, barroom smells. We sat at a table, and I pulled my two hamburgers out of the bag and unwrapped my first one, took a big bite, devouring almost half of the hamburger. It tasted like heaven. The aroma of onion and the taste of salt was very strong. My dad raised his arm and motioned to the bartender.
“Two root beers over here, please,” he said then looked at me.
“Good hamburger, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “They’re really good.”
“My dad used to take me there, too,” he said. “It’s open all night, so after we’d close this place down, we’d go across the street and eat.”
“That cook owns the place. He’s always there. He cooked hamburgers for me and Bob ten years ago. You know what makes the hamburgers taste so good?”
“Well,” he said. “The cook takes a ball of hamburger meat then he sticks it under his armpit and squeezes it flat. That’s how he seasons the patty, too. Kills two birds with one stone.”
I slowed down my chewing. I was on my second burger, and I focused on blanking my mind so that I didn’t think about eating that large, hairy man’s armpits. I gulped down the bite I was chewing and washed the taste out of my mouth with root beer.
“You know, Michael,” my dad said. “Even though you probably can’t tell, Anne Marie loves you.”
“No she doesn’t,” I said, looking down at my uneaten portion of armpit burger. I burped from slamming the root beer. “She hates me and I hate her.”
“I don’t think she hates you,” he said. “Do you remember when you were in the hospital and she came and visited you?”
“Do you remember how excited she was to see you?”
“And how happy you were to see her?”
“Well, if she hated you, then why would she have visited you when you were sick?”
“That’s different,” I said. “Why does she gotta be so mean to me all the time?”
“That’s just part of growing up in a family,” he said. “I still fight with my brother and sister, but just because we’re mean to each other sometimes doesn’t mean we don’t love each other.”
I said nothing.
“You see, Mike, you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family, so pick your friends wisely because you’re stuck with your family, so you might as well have cool friends.” I drank the rest of my root beer, burped again, and looked down at the table. I’d spent all day hating Anne Marie with all my heart, which I’d embraced and needed at the time, but the futility of running away to my great-grandmother’s house, where Anne Marie visited daily, started to settle in. The jukebox in the corner came on, and some men started playing pool.
“Hey, that’s Freddy Fender,” my dad said.
“Cool.” I had no idea who Freddy Fender was.
“When Bob was young, he saw a guy pull out a gun and shoot the jukebox because the guy didn’t like the song that was playing.”
“Wow,” I said, excited to be in such a cool place. There I was, a runaway in a bar where outlaws hung out. “Is that the same jukebox?”
“No,” he said. “That other jukebox died. The man who shot it went to jail for murdering a song.”
“Could I have another rootbeer, Matt—I mean, Dad?” Although the transition was getting easier, I still slipped from time to time.
“Sure,” he said, and he motioned to the bartender. “Barkeep, another root beer for my son, please.”
We arrived back at the house on Glenwood in the late afternoon. We went in the house and my mother was sitting on the couch, fuming. Her face was vein-bulging red, and her eyes were wet with tears. Her chest heaved fiercely with each breath. I froze. I thought I was in trouble for running away.
“What’s wrong, Pam?” my dad asked my mom.
“That fucking dog ate my god-damned shoe,” she said. She held up what was left of her shoe: half of the hard sole with several lacerated straps of red leather hanging off of it. Bucky, who had heard me and my dad come into the house, walked out of the kitchen, dragging the plastic bag full of trash underneath him, wagging his tail excitedly as he shuffled.
“Brand new motherfucking pair of shoes,” she screamed. She grabbed the uneaten shoe from the same pair and held it over her head. “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?”
She threw the shoe across the dining room at Bucky. The shoe spun slowly in the air like a boomerang. Bucky tried to dodge it, but the large bag of trash around his neck impaired his agility. The shoe hit him in the side of face. Bucky yelped. My dad and I cringed, knowing better than to intervene. Without missing a beat, my mother sidearm-threw the other shoe—the mangled sho—across the dining room at Bucky. The shoe flailed wildly due to imbalance, but my mother’s mark was always true, and it hit Bucky in the butt as he retreated back into the kitchen. If there would have been a knife within her reach, my mother probably would have thrown that at the dog, too.
“Mike,” my dad said. “Why don’t you take Bucky for a walk? Hurry.”
“Okay.” I ran to the kitchen and untied Bucky from his shackles. I could hear my mother crying in the other room. I attached Bucky’s leash to his collar and ushered him out of the back door and to safety away from my mother. He pulled forward as hard as he could, running in place, choking himself. His toenails scratched against the sidewalk and his tongue hung half a foot out of the side of his mouth. This was how Bucky was when on a walk. He was high-maintenance at everything he did, but I didn’t care. I loved Bucky. He was my dog. My day was getting better than it had started. I had a dog who loved me. I had a dad, a man who had come to visit me in the hospital when he was still Matt—the man who lived downstairs—a man who had selflessly adopted me, who had chosen me and my mother to be part of his family and who had chosen to be a part of ours.
Once we’d walked halfway around the block, Bucky eased up and stopped pulling so hard. He trotted, and I walked and thought about what my dad had said. If Anne Marie really did love me, then why did she always humiliate me? Why did she always beat me up when she was so much bigger and stronger than me? She woke up everyday in a bad mood. She always tried to start fights with me. She’d boss me around and yell at me and hit me if I didn’t do what she said. If I did anything wrong, she’d get me into trouble, and I couldn’t do anything right in her eyes. She was like my sister, and the only thing I wanted was her approval and for her to be nice to me, even once in a great while.
After walking Bucky around the block, I turned the final corner back onto Glenwood and saw Gus’s big blue truck parked in the middle of the street. I was surprised to see him in front of the house. He wasn’t supposed to know where Anne Marie and Baba lived. All of the neighbors stood at their doors or sat on their front porches watching Gus swagger drunkenly in the street and listening to him yell at my grandmother, who stood on the front lawn next to Anne Marie and behind my mother and father.
“Mary, please,” Gus pleaded. “I love you.”
“You don’t love me,” she yelled to him. She looked exhausted. Anne Marie stood there crying, caught between the two people that she loved the most, her mom and dad.
“God-damn you, you fucking whore,” Gus screamed, pointing his finger at Mary, my grandmother. “You’re coming home with me right fucking now!” Gus stepped onto the curb, and my father pulled his hands out of his pockets. He stood between Gus and Gus’s wife and children.
“She’s not going anywhere, Gus,” my dad said. Gus stepped off of the curb into the street and staggered back to the driver’s side of the big blue truck.
“Michael, go inside right now,” my mother yelled to me. I walked toward the house, but I didn’t go inside. I stood in the driveway behind everyone else and watched.
“You fucking malaka,” my grandfather yelled, pointing at my dad. “You get the fuck out of my way; this is none of your fucking business.”
Concealing something behind his back, my grandfather walked toward my dad. My dad held his ground and motioned with his hand for everyone else to step back. Gus lunged forward, pulling a crowbar out from behind his back, and swung it at my dad’s head. My dad blocked the swing, grabbed the crowbar, and pushed my drunk grandfather to the ground. Gus scooted backwards across the grass and off the curb, crumbling into the street. My dad tossed the crowbar in front of Gus’s feet. Picking up the crowbar as he pushed off of the cement street, Gus slowly rose to a standing position. He stumbled to the driver’s side door of his big blue truck and threw the crowbar onto the floor. As he stepped into the truck, he snarled at my dad.
“I’ll get you good, you motherfucker.” He wiped the corner of his mouth where blood had started to trickle out. He started his truck and held up a beer. He opened the beer, took a sip, and stuck up his middle finger, oscillating it in every direction so to include the neighbors as well as my mom and dad and grandmother.
The truck jumped forward. The explosion of backfire echoed off of the houses on Glenwood, and smoke billowed from the back of the truck as it accelerated slowly toward Gratiot. The faces of the neighbors, my parents, Anne Marie, and Mary wore the ruddy glow of sunset as we all watched the big blue truck sputter and weave recklessly down the street. We could hear Gus yelling curses out of the window until he turned left onto Gratiot a block-and-a-half away and drove south toward the bars and the liquor stores and the homeless, toward the abandoned he chose and away from the family he chose to abandon.