After thugs shot my grandfather, Gus, in the neck, Anne Marie and I learned to better distinguish between the firecracker explosions and gunshot thunder that punctuated inner-city Detroit’s street music of laughing children, yelling mothers, drunk and raving fathers. Anne Marie, my mother’s youngest sister, was seven years old at the time, and I was barely three. My mother and I lived with Anne Marie and their parents, my grandparents—Gus and Mary—in the yellow brick house on the corner of Hazelridge and Peoria in northeast Detroit. By that time in the mid 1970’s, the city’s industrial heart had all but stopped beating, and our neighborhood remained as a limb that hadn’t completely decomposed yet.
Anne Marie and I began our lives at the beginning of the 1970’s, well into the collapse of Detroit’s automotive prosperity; we grew up in a gray space between two worlds. We lived in a neighborhood of beautiful two-and-three story houses falling into disrepair, proof of the industrial city’s decline and evidence of that short distance between prosperity and poverty. Across Peoria, the side-street next to the yellow brick house, Anne Marie and I would run in the gravel covered schoolyard of Robinson Elementary School. We played with wildflowers behind the yellow brick house. We threw rocks at garages. In the alley, we played like royalty under lilac blossoms, and when somebody we didn’t know walked, stumbled, or crawled toward us, we ran back to the yellow brick house, retreating into one of its many rooms or its cavernous basement.
When we weren’t playing in the alley, we’d play in the house’s front yard—in the shade of the four tall evergreen trees that Gus and Mary had planted to celebrate the births of their first four children: my mother, Aunt Carolyn, Aunt Marie Anne, and Uncle Tommy. After their last child, Anne Marie, was born, Gus and Mary planted a mulberry tree. Throughout our early childhood, Anne Marie and I smeared our pant-asses across the juice drenched ground and counted gunshots and firecrackers in the distance. When the sounds came too close, we could run into the yellow brick house to seek protection from Detroit, but nothing could protect us from Mary’s Mississippi racism and Gus’s alcohol-magnified Macedonian rage.
“Mary, I’ll be home in a little while— after I lose at the table,” Gus had called home to say on that night when he got shot. Though he’d always keep this promise, he never came home early. He was an excellent pool player, and the drunker Gus became, the better he played. Usually, long after last call, the bartender would make him stop and turn him out into the cold Detroit morning.
On that night, Gus probably stumbled over the curb and into the same wet, cold street where he’d lain two years earlier with a bruised face and broken back after a similar night of winning at pool. He probably walked down an alley and passed the same dumpster he’d leaned against on another night with a knife wedged into his stomach near his rotting liver. Intending to bring home a platter of baklava for his family, who would wake up soon, Gus might have been walking to a nearby Greek store owned by another barfly, a friend who might be awake still.
“Hey you sons of bitches,” Gus undoubtedly snarled at the group of young black men, punctuating his words with obscene thumb gestures like drunk old Macedonian men do.
If the bullet had been a centimeter closer to his jugular vein, doctors told Gus when he woke up in a hospital with a hangover and a patched hole near his throat, he surely would have died. So he stayed away from the bars for a while and sat at home, smoking cigarettes and tinkering with broken vacuum cleaners and industrial buffing machines that he would eventually try to resell. He’d whine and complain about his toothaches and hemorrhoids, about the economic slump, about how ten years earlier he made more money in a half day of work than he could now in a week. And he’d make lists. As the long black strands of his greased hair hung like curved pincers over his face and yellow smoke rolled through his nostrils, he’d make lists of people he hated.
“That son of a bitch Jablonski is number two on the list this week, Mary,” he’d yell to my grandmother in the kitchen, who would be conjuring headcheese out of boiled pig snouts and knuckles, a Baltic recipe called “piftea” that she’d learned from her mother-in-law.
“I wouldn’t piss on that Malaka if he was on fire,” Gus would say then stand, walk across the living room, and spit out the front door. After hacking coughs shook his body, he’d palm the hole in his neck and yell, “Oh, Jesus Christ!”
One time, I asked, “Dad, what’s a Malaka?” I called him Dad because that’s what my mother and aunts and Anne Marie called him. I didn’t know my biological father, so Gus was the only person I knew by that name.
“Go ask your grandmother,” he said, dismissing me. I walked into the kitchen to ask my grandmother, who hovered over her cauldron and talked to women drinking coffee at the breakfast table.
“I’ve said it before, and I mean it. If any one of my kids marries an A-rab, Mexican, or Colored, I’ll disown them, and I won’t recognize their children as my grandchildren,” she said to the other women. Thinking of the little Asian girl down the alley who Anne Marie and I played with, I asked from ground level, “What about Chinese girls, Baba?”
“Yeah,” she exclaimed, snubbing her cigarette butt into a tin tray and shaking a new one from her pack. “None of them Chinks, either!” At such a young age, I did not understand my grandmother’s racism. Born and raised in Pott’s Camp, Mississippi, she’d brought along her Old South hatred when her father was moved the family up north to Detroit so he could work at Ford. Whereas my grandmother would talk about “Niggers and Chinks,” I was still innocent enough to accept a person simply as a person, and a child—as I was—simply as a child.
“Baba, what’s a Malaka?” I asked her.
“Damnit, Gus,” she said under her breathe, trying not to smile. “Go ask your grandfather, Michael. He’ll tell you. Now go, or I’m going to cut off your ding and put it in the piftea. Go play with Anne Marie.” She pointed her gangly yellow finger toward the living room and stared at me with eyes that could cast shadows on Hell’s floor. As I scrambled out of the kitchen, she braced a hand against her waist, threw her head back, and exhaled cigarette smoke that, like her laughter, settled into every corner of the enormous house.
When Anne Marie and I walked down the alley behind the yellow brick house, we could see other children playing, people working on cars in their yards, mothers and grandmothers hanging diapers across a clothesline to dry, the older kids shooting rats with BB guns. When a rat would get hit, we could hear the shrill cry and see it jump above the tall grass toward the sky then land running. My grandmother would periodically leave the kitchen and the piftea and check the alley to see if we were there.
“I better not catch you two in the alley again, or you’ll both get whooped,” she would say. She would always talk about how the neighborhoods were once beautiful and calm, but that after the riots in the sixties—the riots that scarred the city by burning neighborhoods into charred fields that remained undeveloped because the property value was so low, because the murder rate was so high—the city just hadn’t been safe. But we’d play in the alley anyway. We’d play and fight in the weeds that grew from dirt lines along the house, where the pale yellow walls of 14200 Hazelridge entered deep earth. We’d play with all of the other inner-city children who lived along the same alley and had escaped to there briefly.
The yellow brick house anchored a street corner, so there was a side-street on one side and nine houses on the other. Most of Detroit’s streets were set up with ten houses making one city block. Ten city blocks approximated a mile, and the main streets running east and west had corresponding numerical names, like 6 Mile Road and 7 Mile Road. Most of the roads ran east-west, north-south with a few streets running diagonally, intercepting all other streets. As a French fort, Detroit had burned to the ground, ignited by an airborne pipe ember. The survivors adopted a plan to rebuild the fort into a city that loosely resembled wheel-spokes spreading from the downtown area near the shore of the Detroit River, forming a broad half-moon. Expansion and development naturally occurred geometrically, segmenting the entire city into a sea of squares and rectangles. For trash removal, alleyways cut like empty spines through every city block, creating an alternating pattern of ten houses, alley, ten houses, street, ten houses, alley, ten houses, street, and so on.
Anne Marie and I played in the alley one day when Gus stumbled home from the bar on an early Sunday afternoon about two months after he’d been shot. He had just started drinking again, but for those two months there’d been no screaming arguments, no violence, no reasons to hide.
“Hey, you kids get out of that alley right now,” he yelled to us, the words sliding loosely from his mouth. He pressed both hands against the right side of his face and stumbled to the front porch. We ran through the back door of the yellow brick house, through the kitchen, and into the living room, where Gus swayed in the middle of the floor, next to my grandmother.
“Oh, Jesus Christ, Mary,” he said through clenched teeth, hissing his J’s and S’s. “If that son of a bitch dentist can do it, so can I. Just get me the god-damned pliers.” Then he was still, and he looked at his wife in the scary way that usually made me and Anne Marie run, but he hadn’t raised his hand to her; he didn’t wield a wrench or crowbar, so we didn’t run. We could tell Gus was in pain, and Mary hurried to get the pliers, anxious to dare him.
“Dad,” asked Anne Marie. “Are you alright?”
“Oh, yeah, sweetie,” he said, holding his jaw and short-hopping up and down. “I’ll be all right.” With my fingers in my mouth, I watched my grandfather as if I were watching a movie or cartoon and waiting to see what the main character would do next.
“Here you go, doctor,” my grandmother said, pushing a silver pair of pliers at him. After he snatched the tool from her, she crossed her arms and stood there with a cigarette between her lips, watching attentively as her husband worked the pliers around the sore tooth in his open mouth. Even the birds in the trees outside of the yellow brick house were still for that space in time when Gus paused with pliers under his lip, and only stained-glass-filtered light from the sunroom windows dared to move, flooding the room with color and resting wraith diamonds on the carpet behind his knees. Gus’s tooth twisting away from the pulpy roots under his gums sounded like a candy cane being slowly twisted in half.
“Oh my God,” said Mary, and she walked away.
“We gotta put it in water, Dad,” said Anne Marie, and she ran to the kitchen.
I was young, barely past diapers. I didn’t know what to think as my primary male role model defined my worst fear and acted it out in front of my eyes. He showed me how to supplement loss of control with misplaced aggression. I stood still and watched, with my fingers in my mouth. Gus wailed deep and arched his body backward, clutching his mouth, then he bent forward and spit blood into his hands.
Anne Marie returned with a jar full of water, grabbed the tooth from the ground, and dropped it into the jar. Shades of pink from the bloody tooth washed through the water as it fell into the bottom with that sterile click of glass tapping against bone. Gus clung to the carpet and moaned. Anne Marie held the jar above her head, inspecting the tooth at all angles as if it were an unwrapped toy on Christmas morning. I returned to the alley and sat down on the ground, arranging rocks into square patterns, like I was building my own little city of city blocks, and mile roads, and alleys. Across the side-street stood the elementary school I’d start the next fall. After that would be suicides. After that would be cancers. Before long, as usual, my grandmother came to get me.
“C’mon Michael, time for dinner; the piftea’s ready.” I tried again to ask her what a Malaka was, but she cut me off by telling me things she would tell me when she caught me playing in the alley. She told me that the alley is a place where gangs hide and hang out, where roving bands of dogs scavenge for food. Where people sleep. Where bodies are found.
First Published in Solace in So Many Words, Weighed Words LLC, 2011