Father’s Day

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detroit_4.jpgTwo 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.

“Hey, Kid.”

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“Cool.”

“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?”

“What?”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you remember how excited she was to see you?”

“Yeah.”

“And how happy you were to see her?”

“Yeah.”

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Devil’s Verse

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dust-rings-young-star

“In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni.”
We circle in the night and are consumed by fire.

Clouds choke the sky like a thread web
spun under the moon by eight-legged stars.

From the other side of space, maybe Orion
is the hunter of galactic pests, the Milky Way

a strip of fly paper rattling against the light
of crucified angels. I try to say this but taste

the psalms of insect wings thrum through my lips,
bite my ears into soundless raw funnels.

Water knows such things, how a scaled god
swims in dust and, with each twist, dreams

into form ridged halos of sea. With closed eyes
we wash our hands and feel air get in the way

of fools like touch  and vision. Moths live
in our sleep; they tap xylophone jazz

into our bones, circle in the night, are consumed
by fire. We wake up and remember nothing.

The Bitter Oleander (2006); Astropoetica (2009)

Good Friday

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domestic violence child pic

The smells of sugar, lemon, and vanilla poured from the kitchen in Spring, when the temperature was still cool enough in Detroit so that baking wouldn’t heat the kitchen up too much, and just warm enough so Anne Marie and I could play outside without boots, jackets, and mittens.

“I better not catch you kids running in this house or being loud while I got a cake in the oven,” Mary would say, pointing her yellowed finger at us, a cigarette hanging out of the side of her mouth. “If my cake falls, you two are gonna get it.”

So we’d play outside. We’d run around the mulberry tree in the front yard. We’d gather shirtfulls of rocks from the alley and skip them off the cement on the side of the big house and bounce them into its yellow walls. The scents born in the kitchen would waft out the windows, through the four tall evergreens in the front yard. We’d jump off the porch and play under the trees, scooping pine needles into neat, green piles. On days when there was no danger of collapsing a cake, we could hear Mary’s laughter coming from the kitchen while she cooked and drank coffee and talked to her daughters or the neighbors who would come over to visit. The floors and walls and ceilings of the yellow brick house would vibrate with her laughter.

Anne Marie had a magic crystal ball toy that we’d play with. For it to work right, we had to take it to the special place—in the bathroom under the sink-pipes. Anywhere else, and the magic ball tended to lie. She would ask the oracle, “Is Daddy gonna come home drunk tonight?” She’d shake it up, and an answer would appear behind a plastic window: “Of course.”

“Are Dad and Baba gonna fight again,” I would ask. It would answer: “You can count on that!”

One evening, on Good Friday, Anne Marie and I were both grounded, sentenced to sit on the couch until bedtime. Earlier that afternoon, Anne Marie had chased me with her eerie doll that is life-sized to a four year old—one of those dolls whose eyes open when sitting up and close when lying down. I was only four, and I couldn’t handle that type of thing. Anne Marie knew this. We’d been upstairs in one of the bedrooms playing a board game. Mary told us to stay up there and not make a sound; she was making a cake for Easter with her new mold, a lamb laying on its belly with its head upright and looking to the side. Anne Marie stood up from the game during my turn and reached into her closet, pulling out the doll, holding it up by its wiry hair. When the plastic, evil eyelids opened, I yelled and took flight.

She chased me down the stairs, laughing, while I ran ahead of her, scared for my life and screaming at the top of my lungs. Mary ran out of the kitchen, swinging a wooden spoon. She clipped Anne Marie with it, but I was gone—out the house, through the yard, and to the alley, where I gathered rocks and hid. The cake fell, enraging Mary. She told me that I had to eat piftea for dinner for the rest of the week. Anne Marie and I sat on the couch all evening, silenced until bedtime.

Listening to the crickets outside harmonize into one long orchestrated chirp, we looked blankly at the television Mary had unplugged to punish us. It was Friday night, so my mother was waitressing at the Coney Island in the mall, and her other two sisters were out for the night. Anne Marie and I dared not even whisper as Mary sat on a chair in the dining room, smoking a cigarette with her back turned to us, giving us the silent treatment. By the time we heard Gus cursing down the street on his way home from the bar, the hum of crickets had fallen completely silent. As his legs clunked heavily on the front porch stairs, we heard that familiar guttural growl of him clearing his throat followed by the splat of phlegm against cement. He stumbled through the screen door, breaking it off its hinges. He held a half drank quart of beer in his hand.

“Damnit, Gus,” Mary yelled from across the room. “What the Hell’s the matter with you? We just got that door last week.” He shook the black curves of hair out of his face, meeting her stare with his red eyes. He rushed in broad, clumsy strides toward her.

“It’s not your fucking problem. I’m the one who works all day selling machines to those Malakas over on the west side. I bring in the money; you don’t know how it is.” He turned around to face me and Anne Marie. We sat on the couch with our knees buried in our chests. Swaying slightly from side to side, he pointed at the wall by his recliner, where he’d hung the picture I’d drawn in school, that picture that my teacher pinned to my shirt with a note to my mother, the picture of dings and boobies.

“I like your picture, Michael,” he said, slurring the consonants of my name and cackling wickedly as he walked away from the couch and toward my grandmother.

“Yeah, you make the money, and you drink it all away,” Mary yelled, taking a step toward him. “I’ve spent all day trying to cook for our family this Sunday, and all you can do is stay drunk at the bar and come home and break shit. Jesus Christ, Gus!”

His faced soured. He took a pull of his bottle and slammed it down on the television set. Foam erupted out of the bottle’s lip.

“Oh, shit, Gus,” she said, turning to reach for a towel on the dining room table. Gus spun around with unprecedented agility and clenched her silvering hair in his brown fist, turning her and pulling her into him.

“My family, my family,” he mocked at her. “You really did fuck my cousin Vanny, didn’t you.”

“Gus, the children,” she whimpered with her head lowered and her arms crossing her chest. He pulled her to him tighter and lifted her off of the floor a little bit. “You know I never messed around with Van,” she said, crying and absolutely helpless.

“That’s bullshit,” he yelled, spraying saliva across her face. I could smell the smoke-and-alcohol stench of his breath from across the room. Mary squirmed when Gus raised his hand. The next part is missing from my memory—the sound of palm or fist, the sight of contact—missing like frames of a film that have been edited out and lost. I buried my face in my hands, and when I pulled my hands away, my grandmother’s face looked different—loose and emotionless. Gus pulled his hand back again, and Mary hung in his arms silently and looked at the floor where the light of a shadeless lamp cast shadows.

“No, Daddy, no,” Anne Marie pleaded. I cried and squeezed my arms around her torso. Gus flung Mary into the dining room table and walked to the kitchen. She walked to the chair next to where Anne Marie and I sat and lit a cigarette with her shaking hands. I jumped off the couch and crawled onto her lap.

“I hate him,” I told her.

“So do I Michael, so do I.”

“Why don’t you get a divorce,” I asked. My mother had explained to me once that people who are married and don’t love each other anymore get a divorce. Simple as that.

“I don’t know, baby. I should.”

“Shut up, Michael,” Anne Marie screamed at me from the couch. My grandmother nudged me off her lap and went into the bedroom. “Just shut up,” Anne Marie yelled again when I climbed onto the couch, and she slapped me in the back of the neck. I kept my distance at the end of the couch opposite from her while she cried herself to sleep. When the little hand on the clock pointed to eight and the long, skinny hand pointed to six, I knew it was bedtime, and I opened my grandmother’s bedroom door to ask her to tuck me in. She sat on the corner of the bed, her body wobbling, and she laughed with her face buried in her hands. I ran to her and started laughing, too.

“Hee-hee-ha. What’s so funny Baba?”

“I’m not laughing, Michael,” she said. She raised her wet face and pushed her lips out like a duck. “Just go, I’ll be out in a minute.” I’d never heard my grandmother cry before. I went back to the couch and lay down on it. I could hear Gus banging pots and pans around in the kitchen and coughing.

“Malaka,” I whispered at him until I fell asleep. I awoke on the couch the next morning, Saturday morning. Anne Marie lay on the floor watching cartoons with her evil doll. Gus lay passed-out across the bricks in front of the fireplace. Mary stood alone in the kitchen, frying breakfast for her babies.

Crack the Spine, February 2012, Issue 12

The Running of the Hippies

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RUNNING OF THE HIPPIES

I sit in a café, pouring whiskey from a flask into my coffee to keep my nerves straight. Across the room sits a beautiful young woman, early twenties, Mediterranean skin, sundress, sandals, neon peach toenails. She is reading a magazine. She’s already smiled at me twice, but I’m not here for romance. I pay the waiter and leave.

Fluffy white clouds roll across the afternoon sky, and I can see a billowing tower of precipitation forming, glowing in the sunlight, the eruption of Mount Cocaine. I breathe the humid air and can smell the sea. I light a cigarette and walk with slow, measured steps. People already fill the streets, drinking wine straight from the bottle, dancing, and singing festively. I can’t speak their language, and I don’t know anybody on this side of the world. I’ve never done anything like this.

Bracken did it two years ago, and came home with a different look in his eye, like he glimpsed some type of eternal truth. He starting moving up in his career. Women were immediately drawn to Bracken, who I figured would die a virgin. He met his wife. He claimed the run changed his life, and I really need a life change right about now.

I take another drink of whiskey from my flask. I can’t drink my last wife off of my mind. Number two, and here I am, thirty eight, unemployed, divorced again. I spent everything I had on the plane ticket to get me here, and I have nothing and nobody to come home to except Bracken, who I rarely see because he’s so happily fucking married. I wonder what my third and fourth wives will be like. I wonder if I will still be alive this time tomorrow.

The further I walk, the closer I get to the downtown area, the plaza where the gates are at. The crowd becomes more dense and festive. I can’t hear myself think, which is fine. I wish I didn’t have memories. I wish I didn’t have to drink to get over the women who left me because I drink too much. I pull out my flask again, take another hit for balance, then push my way to the gateside area.

I have second thoughts. People have been trampled to death before, but Bracken, who got a broken rib when he was here, claims that it’s worth the gamble. But I’m not a good gambler. I always lose. With relationships and money, I blow it all in the beginning. Win a few rounds, get cocky, then lose and have to learn how to bluff all over again.

I light a cigarette and grab a rail, pull myself to the very front and onto the street where the stampede will take place. Several people are standing in front of the gates, stretching their limbs and preparing for the charge. These are the brave ones because most injuries and deaths happen in the first few minutes after the gates open.  Bracken advised me to jump in after the initial surge. I light another cigarette. My heart is racing. I know that I shouldn’t drink anymore whiskey today, but that’s never stopped me before. I drink the rest of my whiskey and put the empty flask back into my pocket.

The sun is hot, and sweat stings my eyes. I hear thunder behind me. I can’t chicken out. I won’t be able to face Bracken if I go home without running. I won’t be able to face myself.

Two men in padded uniforms and helmets approach the gates, which swell against the force behind them, and colorfully dressed men and women stand in nearby bleachers, strumming guitars, singing, playing trumpets. The air is thick with humidity and the stench of body odor. Tension peaks as the two men in padded uniforms unlock the great wooden gate. They jump out of the way as the gates swing open and a horde of barefoot, dreadlocked, tie-dyed hippies charge, a cloud of potsmoke and patchouli trailing behind. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, wide-eyed hippies, their nostrils in full flare, glorious colorfully braided hair weaves bouncing off their shoulders, some of them handrolling cigarettes as they run, others beating on hand drums, trampling every fallen body, decimating everything in their path. I dodge a hackee-sack hurled from the epicenter of the stampede.  My stomach is in my throat, but I know what I have to do. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, jump the rail, and run for my very life.

First Published in The Angler (Issue 3, December 2009)

Delilah

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Samson_and_Delilah_mg_0034

Crucified in dance and nipples
in full bloom, the seaweed body
of a girl I know will not live

forever sways. Hell flew a wax
Satan into her arms. I become
the outline of flesh eclipsing
words, ashes on paper, uncertain

thoughts, teeth, a freight train
inside of a soap bubble.

I shave my head against
you. I cannot wash
your glitter from my mouth,
and the nights are scarred
with stars. Burn my eyes, chain

my arms to stone. Steal my jaw;
shake it at the sky in eulogy.
Remember our final morning,

that slice of last October. Tell our cat
I love him. Kiss your husband as sweetly.

Moulin Review, 2010

Medusa

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medusa
Girl with tattered stockings
and broken knees grows cello
strings out of her head. Cold

stabbed her belly and hangs
like a stained tooth from thread.
In dreams, caged in unnerving

bird chatter, she thins, grows
long, writhes wild with snakes,
braids through scaled lovers,

awakens reborn, crawling weakly
away from yellowlessness.
Deranged by bloody

breath and science, by
chittering jowls and drizzle,
she waits for the night

to recognize its leather-winged
daughter. She nuzzles, coos,
bites hard, winces, waits

for a thousand cackling fuses
to vanish in her small mouth.

The Waiting Place

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Detroit
Because my grandfather used whatever vehicle he owned to peddle and transport vacuum cleaners, the rest of the family walked or took the bus. We’d walk to places that were within a few miles of the house, such as the Woolworth’s or the shoe store on the corner of 7 Mile and Gratiot or the Chatham’s grocery store on 6 Mile and Chalmers. By taking the main streets, we could walk to our destination without as much fear. The neighborhood streets were risky and often too racially volatile for us to walk along; black people walked in gangs down the streets or would sit on their porch steps and say things like, “Whitey’s in the wrong part of town,” and much worse. However, even busy streets like Gratiot became more violent and dangerous closer to downtown Detroit, the difference between safety and danger many times depending on a few blocks. Whereas 7 Mile and Gratiot boasted a shopping district busy enough to warrant heavy police protection, south of 6 Mile, the bars, the restaurants, and even the cake-decorating store that my grandmother religiously frequented had signs on the shop windows reading things like, “We reserve the right to refuse service.” And the doors would be locked. The wrong-looking people couldn’t just waltz in and get a beer, or lunch, or baking supplies. These places relied solely on regular customers.

In Detroit, because of crime and gang violence, cops had the most dangerous job. The second most dangerous job was held by anyone who worked south of 6 Mile in places like grocery stores, where the doors stayed unlocked and the employees were directly exposed to the public. As far as convenience stores and gas stations went, every attendant south of 8 Mile, where Detroit stopped and the rest of the world started, worked safely within a cell of two-inch-thick bulletproof glass.

When my mother or grandmother took me downtown, we’d leave early in the morning, during the dawn of the business day, when the busses transported more honest workers than thugs and hoodlums, than thieves and murderers and rapists. And we’d leave the downtown no later than five thirty, when the last of the workers caught the bus back to their homes. Like gangs that aggressively sauntered the neighborhood streets, everyone in Detroit instinctively knew that strength and protection were best provided by numbers. For some people, a gun was the next best option; for others, a gun was the first best option.

The buildings of downtown Detroit resembled thick, square, gray pillars that pushed the clouds against the sky, buildings so tall that when I’d look up, mild vertigo would set in, transforming my vision into a spinning corridor of ash where everything—the overcast sky, the soot-stained stone of the buildings, the periphery of street, curb, and sidewalk—blended into each other, much like the white-out experienced by arctic explorers. In these white-outs, supposedly, the falling snow and the white ground and sky intermesh like fingers, rendering depth-perception difficult, in some cases, impossible. In downtown Detroit, this experience was several shades grayer. Eventually, my grandmother or mother would pull my hand, bringing me out of the illusion, usually for the sake of crossing the street. They’d grip my arm so that I wouldn’t get lost or snatched in the pedestrian herd.

Regardless of the other places we visited downtown, we’d always go to the waiting place, the welfare office, whose lobby accommodated an equal number of black people and white people. There were always more children there than adults. The children always laughed. The adults never so much as smiled.

“You stay by me, Michael,” my grandmother would always say. “I don’t want you playing with any of those little nigger children.”

Sometimes Anne Marie would be there to bully and intimidate me. I liked going there a lot more with my mother, who didn’t care who I played with. When I went with my mother, I could venture to the corner of the lobby, where all the other children played with ragged books and dolls, broken Legos and toy trains, and other heavily recycled toys that the Michigan Welfare Department provided to the children to make the waiting game easier for everyone. On occasion, I’d play with a little black child until his or her grandmother intervened, sneering at me, and saying, “I told you not to play with no honkey children. Come over here and sit down.” Eventually, a welfare department worker would call our number. My mother never got hassled; even though she worked full-time as a waitress, she was a single mother, fully entitled to state aid. My grandmother always got hassled.

“Mrs. Mitre, is your husband still unemployed?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she would lie. My self-employed grandfather supposedly made halfway decent money, but he drank most of it away at the local bars, leaving behind pocket change that my grandmother would use to buy bread crumbs so that she could dilute the hamburger so that we could eat meatloaf all week.

“So he’s been unemployed for almost a year now? Hmmm—apparently he hasn’t been looking hard enough.”

“Please, ma’am, he’s been out looking every day,” my grandmother would plead, developing the lie further. The only thing that her husband did every day was drink at the bar and come home drunk and angry about his life, about the fact that his father had died ten years earlier and stopped paying the family bills. He was angry about the fact that he was left with a beautiful family to support.

“He’s got interviews all next week—good ones—but I’ve got babies to feed,” my grandmother would say and then she’d pat me and Anne Marie on our heads and pull both of us into her hips.

“The unemployment office down the street can find him a job today, Mrs. Mitre. You or him, one of the two. Unless one of you comes down in the next week to try, this is the last time we can give you anything.” I remember my grandmother being told this time and time and time again. Then, the worker would give her a ticket.

“Here you go, Mrs. Mitre. Collect your disbursement at the back door—I guess you already know that.”

“Thank you so much,” my grandmother would say. She’d pocket the ticket, grab me and Anne Marie by our wrists, and hurry us out of the welfare office, as if she feared that the social worker would suddenly have a change of heart and take the ticket away. We’d then stand in another line outside, behind the building. Anne Marie and I called it the cheese-line, because the people at the back door who took tickets traded them for five-pound bricks of cheese and a bag of assorted dry-storage grocery items: honey, dehydrated milk, boxes of macaroni and cheese, Spam.

“C’mon, Michael,” my grandmother said one day after the dispersement. Anne Marie was in class in the third grade on that day. I was still too young to go to school.

“We can make the 4:30 bus still.” She wedged the cheese into her grocery bag so that it didn’t stick out over the top, and I followed her through downtown Detroit, holding on to her beltloop while she carried her cargo over the damp curbs, through the litter-strewn streets, across the cracks in the sidewalk from where weeds desperately reached toward sunlight, and to the bus-stop, where the 4:30 bus had just pulled up and passengers were filing in.

The bus was nearly full, so we walked down the aisle toward the rear, looking for a seat. There were a few half-empty rows, and usually, people would adjust and sit next to someone they didn’t know, especially to make room for women with children and elderly people. As my grandmother stretched her neck in search of a seat she might have overlooked, or maybe to catch the eyes of someone in a single seat that might take pity and move so that she and I could sit together, the bus started to move, throwing her off balance. She dropped the bag onto the floor of the bus, scattering the welfare groceries and block of cheese where the whole world could see.

“Damn it,” she said, crouching onto her knees and gathering boxes, putting them into the torn grocery bag, which had lost half of its storage capacity when it hit the floor.

“Oh, my,” said a woman sitting nearby. She started to grab some of the groceries. “Here, let me help you.”

“Thank you, dear,” my grandmother said. “Do these drivers get their license out of a gumball machine or something?” The woman laughed. She was white. She sat next to a black man. On the black man’s lap sat a child who wasn’t black or white, a little girl whose skin was the color of caramel milk, a color of person I’d never before seen. My language and ideas at that young age consisted of labels, and I didn’t know what label to apply to the little girl. I knew that “mother” meant my mom, or that “Baba” or “Mary” was what everyone called my grandmother; I knew that my grandfather was a “drunk” and a “bastard”; I knew that I called him “Dad” even though he wasn’t my father; I didn’t know the meaning of “father.” I knew that everyone in the world outside of my grandfather was a “son-of-a-bitch”. I knew that “Coleman Young” was the “mayor” of “Detroit” because my family called the cheese from the free cheese line, “Mayor Coleman Young Cheese,” but I didn’t know what these words really meant. I didn’t know what a “mayor” was. I didn’t know what “Detroit” was. I didn’t know what a “motherfucker” was. I didn’t know what “welfare” meant. All I knew is that I needed a label to apply, so I pointed my finger at the little girl and made an educated guess.

“Baba, is she a nigger, too?” My grandmother gasped and turned pale when I asked her the question. Her eyes outgrew their normal size and hung out of their sockets like the yolks of shell-less eggs.

“Michael, that’s not a nice word. You shouldn’t say that,” she said in a hushed tone, but everyone in the bus looked at us. I heard the drone of engine beneath the floor as the bus proceeded north on Gratiot Avenue.

“You and Dad say it,” I whined. I was getting crabby and tired from walking around the streets all day, and I was starting to get hungry. The woman helping my grandmother gather the groceries stopped helping her and sneered, then began stroking her fingers through the dozens of little ringlets of hair on her daughter’s head. Nobody, black nor white, made room for us to sit. During the entire ride back to 7 Mile, I sat on the floor of the bus while my grandmother stood in the aisle, holding her free brick of cheese and looking only into the places of the bus where there weren’t a set of eyes staring back.