Forgetting How to Walk

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By the time I started first grade, my mother and I had moved into our own apartment on the east side of Detroit, 14225 Glenwood, several blocks north of my Gus and Mary—my grandparents—and the yellow brick house, where I’d lived all five years of my life. My mother and I had briefly occupied the apartment across the hall from my great-grandmother, Nunie, but when she moved away from the yellow brick house, my mother followed her example and found a different place for us to live—an apartment with a landlord who would fix heating and plumbing problems, a place in a neighborhood where everyone who lived on the street didn’t have to listen to Gus and Mary scream at each other every day. Nunie moved a few streets south into a duplex apartment above my Aunt Mary Anne. Because my Nunie still lived only a few blocks away from Robinson Elementary, I often stayed the night at her apartment, and she’d walk me to school in the morning and pick me up in the afternoon so that my mother could earn money waitressing at the Coney Island restaurant in Eastland Mall.

The schoolyard made a huge impression on me in first grade. As a kindergartener, I only attended half of the school day and therefore missed out on lunch break and the special half hour recess. The lunch break was split into halves: the primary level students, and the third, fourth, and fifth graders. The primary students would start a half hour earlier; we’d eat lunch while the third, fourth, and fifth graders counted the minutes until their lunch bell, when they would file into the lunchroom and our teachers would march us out to the schoolyard. We would play on the gravel yard until the next bell, when our teachers would line us up and march us back into the building as a flurry of fourth and fifth graders dispersed into the schoolyard like confetti in a storm.

That schoolyard represented my first taste of freedom. Though teachers spread out over the yard to monitor the students, I could wander and play whatever I wanted with whoever I wanted to play with, and despite the fact that I’d gained a small level of independence from the world I was familiar with, across the street still loomed the yellow brick house, rising out of the pavement like a majestic golden castle. From time to time my one of my grandmothers or aunts would sit on the side porch until I waved at them from across the schoolyard. Sometimes I would see my aunt Anne Marie, three-and-a-half years my senior, running full speed onto the gravel with her classmates as my recess ended and hers began, and she would wave at me and stick out her tongue.

Even though I no longer lived in the yellow brick house, I still saw Anne Marie every day. When my mother wasn’t working, she’d often babysit Anne Marie, and the three of us would play and watch the television, and my mother would usually treat us to dinner at a restaurant. One Saturday evening, she took us to a place called Andy’s, a diner on Gratiot. It was my favorite restaurant, not so much because of great food but rather because when my mother took me there in the daytime, the old men sitting on stools around the coffee counter would give me quarters and dollar bills and tell me to go get a haircut or buy a hot dog or put it in the bank, where it would eventually turn into a million dollars.

I ordered lambchops. I usually ordered a roastbeef sandwich with mayonnaise and tomato, and French fries on the side. Usually, I would wait until a special day, like my birthday, to order lambchops, when my mother would prompt me to order something more adventurous than usual. However, I ordered the chops and Anne Marie ordered whatever she wanted, and my mother said that it was alright, that she’d made a lot of tip money at work that afternoon. She bought us refills of chocolate milk, and we laughed and ate everything on our plates, and afterwards, we ordered desserts. I ordered a slice of cherry pie, not knowing that for the next several years of my childhood, I would blame that slice of cherry pie for making me sick and changing my life. Thirty hours later, I’d be checked into Detroit Children’s Hospital with days of tests to be administered before the doctors would conclude that I’d somehow contracted Guillan-Barre syndrome, a rare virus that attacks the nervous system, affecting one in every one-hundred thousand people.

My stomach started to feel queasy halfway through the pie, and I went to the bathroom and threw up. I’d eaten a lot of rich and sweet food all day, so the cherry pie was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. In this case, it was the piece of pie that broke my stomach. Because I was sick, my mother dropped me off at Nunie’s so that Nunie could take care of me while my mother spent time with Anne Marie. Nunie gave me a small cup of cola syrup to ease my stomach, and I fell asleep to six-year-old-child dreams.

I woke up the next morning on Nunie’s couch. My stomach still felt uneasy, and I had to go to the bathroom. When I stood up, I fell back down onto the couch. I stood up again and started walking, but my legs were very weak. All of my limbs were weak, and I couldn’t hold my balance very well, so I stumbled like a drunk across Nunie’s living room and dining room on the way the bathroom. When I walked back to the couch, I felt like I was trying to walk through a funhouse with moving floors. As I tripped and stumbled, even the walls seemed to jump away from my hands. I finally collapsed into the couch and pulled my legs off of the floor. The effort of walking to the bathroom and back exhausted me, and I knew that something was wrong.

“Michael, stop making all that racket,” yelled Nunie from her bedroom. I scanned the room from my position on the couch, where I lay in my underwear. I looked across the room at two armchairs draped with throw covers and the coffee-table and lamp between them. I looked at another wall, at a painting with a frame that Nunie had covered with little paper dolls that I’d made. I saw underneath the painting the patch of wall covered with dried boogers next to the chair where I’d sit and eat snacks and watch cartoons after school and pick my nose. I looked to a nearby corner at the small black-and-white television set that I’d spent half of my life in front of, eating fattening snacks and not getting dirty, because Nunie would not have that. I reached for the power button to try to turn it on because it was Sunday, and the Lone Ranger came on every Sunday morning, but I couldn’t reach, and I felt too weak to climb over the arm of the couch.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Nunie said, walking out of her bedroom and tying the belt on her robe. “What kind of cereal do you want for breakfast?”

“Peanut-butter crunch,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “Cause that’s all I’ve got.”

“Nunie,” I asked. “Can you turn the TV on for me?”

“Michael, I ain’t gonna do everything for you,” she snapped, turning toward the kitchen. “You’re gonna hafta get outta bed and do it yourself.”

Nunie walked into the kitchen, and I heard cabinet doors swinging shut, the rattling of glass bottles in the refrigerator, the whoosh of cereal falling into a porcelain bowl. I rolled off of the couch onto my hands and knees and crawled a few feet to the television. I reached up and turned it on. My fingers cramped up as I turned the channel dial to the Lone Ranger. Nunie carried a tray with my breakfast into the living room as I crawled back to the couch.

“Michael,” she said. “What in the hell are you doing? You’re gonna get all dirty. Go on and wersh yer hands before you eat.” I could tell that she was getting mad because her Mississippi-born-bred-and-raised tongue drawled.

“Go on, now,” she snapped, setting my bowl of cereal onto a coffee table so that she could unfold a TV table for me to eat off of. I tried my best and slowly stood up, using the arm of the couch for leverage.

“Hurry up, Michael. Your cereal’s gonna get soggy, and I ain’t got no more. If you don’t eat it, you’ll have to wait until your mother comes to get you after church.”

“Okay, Nunie,” I said. “I’ll hurry.” I took a few shaky steps into the middle of the living room before stumbling into the dining room and grabbing onto the trim around the entryway separating the living room from the dining room.

“Michael,” she said. “Stop playing. Tommy’ll be here to pick us up for church, and I gotta get ready. Go on and wersh yer hands.”

“I’m sorry, Nunie,” I said. “I’ll hurry.” I walked slowly, holding onto the dining room wall for support and following the wall to the bathroom. After washing my hands, I started my return trip to the living room, this time trying to walk through the middle of the dining room. Halfway through, I fell down.

“Michael,” Nunie said, walking into the dining room. “Do you feel okay? Does your stomach still hurt?”

“A little bit,” I said, trying to stand. Nunie walked to me and helped me off of the ground.

“I feel dizzy when I walk,” I said, and I tried to take a step but started to stumble. Nunie helped me to the couch, and I could walk better with her help, but I could tell that my seventy-year-old great-grandmother strained under my weight, and her silence scared me. She walked into the kitchen and started calling people, saying things like, “I’ve never seen a child act like this before … no, I don’t think he’s playing … I don’t know, I just don’t know.”

I lay on the couch terrified. My mother and Mary arrived ten minutes later. They sat on the couch, palming my forehead and rubbing my legs. They helped me get dressed so that my mother could take me home, and my aunt Mary Anne came upstairs from her apartment. She helped my mother and Mary hold me up and lead me down the stairs and into the car.

Several blocks north, when we arrived at our house on Glenwood, my mother enlisted Malcomb, the teenage boy who lived across the street, to help me up the stairs to our apartment on the second floor. They acted as human crutches, and we slowly climbed step by step to the second floor, through the rooms, and into my bedroom, where I collapsed onto my bed as soon as they let go of me. I lay weak and exhausted on my bed because I’d exerted all of my energy. My mother and Malcomb stood panting, leaning over to catch their breaths. Though I could still walk a little, I’d grown much weaker since I woke up at Nunie’s house, and Malcomb and my mother had held up most of the burden of my weight, about one hundred and ten pounds.

“What’s wrong with him,” Malcomb asked my mother as she adjusted the pillow beneath my head.

“I don’t know,” she said, crying.

I closed my eyes and went back to sleep. When I opened my eyes, hours had passed. The last threads of daylight drifted through my bedroom window. My mother and Malcomb and Malcomb’s mother, who was a friend of my mother at the time, stood in my bedroom.

“Come on, Michael, baby,” my mother said to me in a very strong yet tender voice. “I’m going to take you to the hospital.”

My mother and Malcomb sat on either side of me. I raised my shaking arms and wrapped them around their necks. They stood up and I hung limp between them like a fat, wet hammock. They both grunted under my weight. I straightened my posture the best that I could, and the three of us walked slowly back to the front door.

“I’m hungry, Mommy,” I said. I hadn’t eaten all day because my stomach still felt sick from the night before, and I’d spent the entire day alternating between sleeping and the labor of trying to walk.

“I’ll get you something to eat at the hospital, baby,” she said to me.

“I gotta go pee,” I told her as we approached the front door.

“Can you hold it until we get there?”

“Yes.” We started down the staircase, the same staircase that we’d ascended hours earlier, when I’d had more strength and control. My energy drained with each passing second. I could feel their bodies flex. When we’d reached the landing, they paused briefly to rest.

“Michael, you’re going to have to help us more than that, honey,” my mother said, breathing heavily.

“I’m trying, Mommy,” I said. We continued down the rest of the stairs. My arms slid down their backs because I couldn’t hold on to them anymore.

“Hold onto us, baby,” my mother said, panting and straining. “We can’t carry you.” I took a breath and held onto them with all of my might. When we made it to the bottom of the stairs, my mother knocked on our downstairs neighbor’s door to ask for help. Matt came out and helped Malcomb brace me upright and guide me to the street while my mother started the car. Once they’d gotten me to the car, Matt asked my mother what had happened to me, and she told him that she didn’t know.

She drove north on Chalmers and took 7 Mile east to St. John’s Hospital, where I was born almost seven years earlier. She drove to the emergency entrance, leaving the parked car running while she went inside to find help. After a few minutes, a nurse with a wheelchair accompanied my mother to the car. They loaded me into the wheelchair, and even though the door to the emergency room was a few yards away, my mother reached into the car’s backseat and pulled out a blanket to protect me from the bitter cold of January in Detroit.

The waiting room was almost empty, and we sat there long after my mother had filled out the necessary paperwork. The few men in the waiting room were glued to the television. It was Superbowl Sunday, and the two best football teams of 1979 were battling for the NFL championship. Like my mother, I sat there wondering what was wrong with me. In the course of a day, I’d forgotten how to walk, and my muscles had forgotten how to obey my brain. Two days earlier, I played on the gravel playground sandwiched between Robinson Elementary and the yellow brick house. The day before, I could walk. Earlier that morning, I could still stand up on my own two feet. I sat in a wheelchair in the hospital waiting room, my mother holding my hand and telling me that everything would be alright, and finally the door separating the waiting room from the emergency ward opened. A nurse appeared.

“Piggins?”

“Right here,” my mother said.

“This way,” said the nurse. My mother pushed me into the emergency ward, and the nurse led us through the halls and into a room. A few minutes later, a doctor came into the room. He turned on a radio, adjusted the dial, and turned around to look at me.

“Stand up,” he said. I couldn’t.

“Lean forward,” he said. I used all of my might to do so, and I sat very shakily in front of him.

“Hold your hands out like this, like an airplane,” he said. I did. Voices on the radio yelled excitedly. The doctor looked at the radio and cursed under his breath.

“Touch your nose with this hand,” he said. I did.

“Now touch your nose with the other hand.” I did. My torso wobbled.

“You can lean back if you want,” he said. I collapsed back into my wheelchair. The doctor paused for a moment, listening to the radio and watching imaginary football players in his head collide with each other.

“Okay,” the doctor said after a commercial came on the radio. He held up a finger.

“Watch my finger,” he said. I did.

“Follow my finger with your eyes,” he said. I did. He shined a light in my eyes and looked into them as he moved his finger back and forth across my vision, from periphery to periphery. I watched his finger move from side to side. Then he turned off his light.

My mother asked, “What’s the matter with him, doctor?”

“He’s faking,” the doctor told her.

“Faking,” my mother asked in disbelief.

“Yeah, he probably just wants attention.”

“But he can’t walk.”

“He doesn’t want to walk, Ms. Piggins,” the doctor said as he walked toward the door. “I see kids do this type of thing all the time.”

Ten minutes later, my crying mother drove west down 7 Mile away from St. John’s hospital. When we got back to the apartment on Glenwood, she left me in the warm car and found Malcomb and Matt to help me back upstairs. This time, I couldn’t help them help me, and they carried me by my legs and shoulders like a piece of heavy, fragile furniture up the stairs and to my bed. As I drifted back to sleep, I could hear my mother on the telephone. I couldn’t discern her words, only her voice as it changed from scared to mournful to frantic to angry to scared.

She woke me up in the middle of the night, and Matt and Malcomb carried me back down to the car. This time, she got on the highway and drove downtown to Detroit Children’s Hospital. As soon as we pulled up to the emergency entrance, two nurses ran to the car, one of them carrying a blanket, the other pushing an empty wheelchair. My mother kissed me on the forehead, and the nurses loaded me into the chair, covered me with a blanket, and took me inside the hospital, which became my new home for the next seven-and-a-half weeks as I struggled to survive and recover from Guillian-Barre Syndrome.

 

The Accident

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Unfortunately, unlike Pulaski Middle School—the Detroit public school I attended until 8th grade, where I played upright bass and competed in city-sponsored visual arts and journalism competition—the private, Catholic St. Clement High School in the suburb of Centerline did not have orchestra nor any semblance of arts in the curriculum. However, the 350-pound Irish football coach, Coach McLeod, salivated the minute he saw me. I was among the biggest males in the small high school my freshman year, and McLeod badgered me throughout my freshman year until I relented and agreed to play football as a sophomore.

Soon after the season ended, my friend and teammate, Dwayne, turned sixteen. He had been held back in first grade, so he was older than the other sophomores and received his driver’s license before the rest of us. Dwayne lived in Detroit in a neighborhood near mine. His dad was a Detroit cop, so his family had to live within the city limits, a measure enacted by Mayor Coleman Young in the early 1980’s to slow down the rate of residents abandoning the city and fleeing to the suburbs.

Dwayne’s parents owned two cars, and they let him drive one or the other to school. Because Dwayne and I lived so close to each other, my parents gave me five dollars a week to give to Dwayne for gas, and he’d pick me up in the morning on his way to school and drop me off on his way home. Sometimes he would drive the newer, late-eighties-model family car—a gas-efficient, four-cylinder Pontiac. Other times, he’d drive his dad’s baby—a 1975 Ford Thunderbird. Whereas the Pontiac was a sensible and practical car, the Thunderbird was a beast of a vehicle, a significant length of pure steel with an eight-cylinder engine that could beat most cars in a race and probably had enough horsepower to tow a freight train.

Riding with Dwayne gave me a sense of freedom. With his sixteenth birthday and driver’s license, I transformed from a teenager dependent on some type of guardian figure for rides to school, mall, or movies to a more independent person with more independent friends home.

I liked the liberty of getting out of school and going home or hanging out with Dwayne; we’d cruise around, stopping to get chips and pop, to play video games, to do anything that we wanted to with the extra time that the end of the football season had freed up for us. He would often drive other classmates home, and since I lived less than a mile away from him, he’d drop me off last, which I didn’t mind because we’d hang out with the guys he’d drop off. We’d play basketball or listen to music and play Nintendo or watch movies. If parents weren’t home, we’d watch pornography when we could get our hands on some, and at the ages of fifteen and sixteen, someone always had a secret porn stash.

On December 14, 1988, I rode with Dwayne as he gave a ride home to two of our friends and teammates, Vic and John. Dwayne had his dad’s Thunderbird that day, and after school ended, the four of us loaded into that beast of a car with the intention of watching some porn at John’s house because his parents usually didn’t come home until after five o’clock. Before a football practice a few months earlier, I’d told John and Dwayne about the first porno I ever watched, “Big Bad Bertha.” John and I were both sitting in the back seat, and when Dwayne started the car and revved the monstrous eight-cylinder engine, John turned to me and yelled over the thunder that he’d acquired a copy of “Big Bad Bertha, part 2,” that we could watch when we got to his house.

Dwayne drove us around the neighborhoods surrounding St. Clement. He loved to show off the power of his dad’s Thunderbird, and after every stop sign or red light, Dwayne stepped on the gas pedal, pushing it flat against the floor, and the car’s mighty engine roared as the wheels spun in place, filling the neighborhood air with smoke and the squeal of burning tire rubber. Though a few inches of snow had fallen the day before, the streets had since been salted and were dry, but Dwayne drove around until he found an empty parking lot covered in snow. He turned into the lot, drove to the middle, and parked the car.

“Check this shit out,” he said. “Hold on tight.” Vic pushed out his arms against the dashboard to brace himself. John and I were sitting in the back seat, and we both grabbed onto the back of the front bench seat and leaned forward to strengthen our grip. Dwayne shifted the car into reverse, stepped on the gas pedal, and turned the steering wheel all the way to one side. The tires spun, melting the snow and catching the cement underneath. With a jerk, the car lunged backward and turned. Dwayne wrapped his arms around the wheel and held on tightly, and the car spun circles. We tried to keep our grip on the car seats and dashboard, but after a few seconds, the centrifugal force grew too strong, plastering Vic’s face against the passenger-door window, plastering me against the car’s inside backseat wall, and slinging John onto my lap. When Dwayne couldn’t hold onto the wheel and push the gas pedal anymore, he let go and slid across the bench-seat into Vic while the car continued to spin over snow, gradually slowing to a stop as we laughed.

After the parking lot, Dwayne drove south on Hoover then turned left and proceeded down 9 Mile, passing Groesbeck and Scheonner. Just before Gratiot, he turned onto the street where John lived, about a block south of East Detroit High School. Dwayne parked in front of John’s house, and we all sighed at the sight of a car parked in the driveway.

“Shit,” John said as the happiness in his facial expression faded. “My mother’s home. Goddamn it.”

“That’s alright, man,” I said. “Just save that shit, and we’ll watch it some other day. You guys are gonna trip out when you see Bertha’s long, flabby titties.”

“Yeah,” said John with his shoulders slouched in defeat. “It’s just kinda a buzzkill cause I wanted to watch it today.”

“We can watch it at my house,” said Vic. He turned around in his seat to look at us. “Even if my dad is home, I got a TV in my bedroom, and he won’t bother us. I don’t think he’d care, anyway.”

“You think he’d watch it with us?” asked Dwayne.

“Who knows,” said Vic. “Probably—I wouldn’t doubt it.”

“Naw, man,” said John. “I think we’re going to my aunt’s house for dinner tonight, so I’ll have to be home in the next hour or two, anyway.”

“C’mon, man,” Dwayne pleaded. “Why don’t you just give it to us, and we’ll go watch it at Vic’s.”

“Fuck that,” said John. “I want to watch it with you guys; I haven’t watched any of it yet.” He rolled his eyes back and tilted his head upward, as if he were trying to look at something on his forehead. “We can go inside and watch TV and wait. She might leave.”

“I though you guys were going to dinner in a couple of hours,” I said. “Why would she leave?” John sighed.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Just hoping, I guess.” John got out of the car and went inside his house. Dwayne drove around the block and turned left onto 9 Mile, heading west. Vic lived further out in the suburbs at 13 Mile and Groesbeck. Whereas streets like Gratiot and Groesbeck and Hoover ran parallel to each other, Scheonner cut across at an angle, intercepting the other three busy streets. Dwayne turned right onto Scheonner, taking a shortcut to Groesbeck. When Dwayne turned right onto Groesbeck, heading north toward Vic’s house, he gunned the engine and the car accelerated from zero to sixty miles per hour in a matter of seconds. Groesbeck was a major thoroughfare with a speed limit of fifty miles per hour, and Dwayne continued to accelerate, passing the other law-abiding drivers like they were going five or ten miles per hour. I pulled my feet off of the floor and rested my legs across the back seat. I leaned back and rested my head against the car’s interior wall, enjoying pure speed and the powerful rumble of the car’s engine.

About half a block ahead of us—maybe sixty or seventy yards—the traffic light at the corner of 10 Mile turned yellow, and while the other cars traveling north slowed down to stop, Dwayne pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and we continued to accelerate. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched signs and buildings and cars and concrete blend into a single blurry gray stripe. We were still about twenty yards away from the intersection when the light turned red, but the Thunderbird was going too fast to stop. Dwayne stood up with his foot still on the gas pedal. He braced the steering wheel with both of his hands and straightened his arms, locking his elbows. A car in one of the southbound lanes had already started to turn left, crossing into our path.

I stayed calm. Throughout my life, I’d almost been involved in several accidents that somehow never happened; each time, the car I was in or the other car would swerve just enough to barely miss a collision. I was disillusioned to the point that I thought car accidents happened to other people and were the types of occurrences that would always almost happen to me. I didn’t brace myself. I sat in calm silence, thinking to myself that we’d miss, that we’d always just barely miss, that in two seconds the Thunderbird would still be speeding up Groesbeck on the other side of 10 Mile, and Dwayne, Vic, and I would be looking at each other, wide eyed and marveling over what we’d just avoided.

I don’t remember any visual aspects of the collision. I don’t remember the sensation of my limp, relaxed body slamming into the wide front bench seat and tearing it from the bolts securing it to the floorboards. I don’t remember seeing the Thunderbird’s front windshield that my face crashed through, leaving a head-sized hole in the shattered glass, and I was probably already unconscious as the Thunderbird veered head-on into a telephone pole on the nearby street corner. I only remember the obscene high-pitched shriek of metal scraping against metal, a sound that resembled that of a fork pushing into the surface of a plate or a sheet of aluminum foil being torn in half, amplified a million ugly times.

Then silence. White calm silence. I dreamed a sea of milk inseparable from a solid white sky, and I floated sandwiched inside of the white peace. I floated without a care, as if I were letting out a deep breath that I’d been holding in my body for a painfully long time. I continued to float feet-first into the white nothing, and I didn’t care about anything—I felt alone yet fulfilled in white emptiness. Then sounds, birdlike sounds that felt like the memory of a voice I’d already dreamt about countless times. I could barely hear the voice. I could barely recognize syllables or the sound of my name. “Mike.” I floated. “Mike.” White. “Mike, get up.” I floated; the words grew more faint. “Get out of the car; we’ve been in an accident.” Drifting. “Mike, come on, Mike.” My name. Drifting, letting go. “Please, Mike.” Then gradually louder. “Get up, man, get out of the car. Please wake up, Mike!” I reached toward my name, and the white faded, but I didn’t. I opened my eyes.

“Mike!”

I looked to my left, and I saw Vic sitting on a pile of twisted debris.

“Get out of the car, Mike,” said the Vic to my left. I watched his mouth move as the words found my ears. I heard my name again.

“Mike!”

I looked to my right and saw Vic crouched underneath the shattered dashboard in front of where the passenger’s side of the bench seat used to be.

“Get out of the car,” said the Vic to my right, and I watched his mouth as his words found my ears. At first, I didn’t know where I was, who I was, how I was, or when I was, then slowly my senses returned. I saw my arms and legs and knew I was still Mike. I saw part of the massive eight-cylinder engine jutting out between the halves of the car’s broken dashboard, and I suddenly understood what had happened. I could still hear the shriek of the collision resonate inside of my head. As I crawled over the transmission and out of the car, my arms and legs shook, and my heart pounded. Blood stained the chest and sleeves of my white jacket. I looked into a single remaining wedge of side-door mirror and saw my eyes and forehead. The rest of my face and neck was covered in blood. Someone grabbed my arm.

“Oh, my god, honey,” said the person holding my arm, a young black woman. Tears flowed out of her eyes, over the top of her cheeks, and onto the ground. “Baby, are you alright?”

“Yeah,” I said. “How are you?”

“Get him to that bench,” somebody else said. I looked in the direction of the voice and saw an elderly white man walking toward me and the black woman. I looked around and saw several people running toward me and more people getting out of cars that they’d parked in the middle of the street.

“Huh?” I asked and started to feel dizzy.

“Did you see that?”

“Yeah, he’s lucky to be standing.”

“We gotta get him to that bench so he can lay down.”

“Hang in there, baby.”

“Is there anyone else in that car?”

“My God, I’ve never seen anything like that; that car came from out of nowhere.”

“Please, Jesus. Please, please sweet Jesus.”

“I don’t think so—that other fella walked away, I don’t know where he’s run off to.”

The black woman and the old white man held my arms and led me to a bus-stop bench. As I lay down on the bench, I looked at the intersection. The car that we hit was folded into a wedge in the middle of the street. The front of the mighty Thunderbird wrapped like crab-claws around the telephone pole. Shattered glass and ribbons of twisted metal covered the entire intersection, from corner to corner to corner to corner. I lay back and looked at the sky. After several minutes, a police officer’s face appeared above me.

“Are you okay, son?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, still dazed. “Where are my friends?”

“They’re alright, all things considered,” he said. “The driver’s laying down over there, and the other guy started walking down the street. He’s in shock. We’re taking him to the hospital in the squad car. An ambulance will be here in a minute.”

“Why?” I asked. “Are they hurt?”

“Don’t worry about them,” the cop said. “They look like they made it out of this better than you did. You guys are lucky—when we got here and saw the car, I called you guys in as dead on contact.”

The cop walked away. I looked at the sky. I heard a distant siren growing louder as it approached. Though winter clouds covered the cold streets, I felt warm, like it was summertime and I was fully dressed and the sun was beating down on me. I felt something dripping down the back of my neck. I started to sit up.

“Whoah, there, son,” said the old man who had helped the crying black woman lead me to the bench so I could lie down. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I gotta take my jacket off. It’s too hot out here,” I said, wiping my face with my hands. “I’m sweating like crazy.”

“You just stay put,” he said, pushing his palm against my chest. “And I don’t think that’s sweat you feel.”

“No,” I said. “I’m alright. I got judo tonight.”

“Baby,” the black woman said, laughing, tears still rolling off of the top of her cheeks. “I think the Judo will be alright without you.”

The distant siren got louder and louder, like someone was holding it next to my head. I looked at the sky. It was white, but different that the calm white I dreamed a few minutes earlier. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, two men in light blue uniforms were standing over me, waving people back.

“Everyone, clear away from the bench,” said one of the men in the light blue uniforms. “We need room.”

“How you doing, there?” asked the other man in the light blue uniform.

“Good,” I said. “How are you?”

“Happy to see you guys alive,” he said, and he pushed his hands firmly against my hips and ribs. “Can you roll over that way a little bit?”

“Yeah,” I said, and I shifted my weight but didn’t have the strength to roll over on my own. The man pushing gently against my hip and ribs rolled me over onto my side while the other one slid a board halfway under my body. They rolled me back to my original position; I felt the thick wood of the board under my back, I felt the pressure on my shoulders and legs as they strapped me to the board.

“Keep your head still,” one of the men said, and he put a foam brace over my neck. “It’s important that you stay as still as possible during the ride.”

“Do I get to ride in an ambulance?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think we can work that out for you.”

They lifted the board and as they carried me away from the bench, I felt the sensation of floating. I could hear and feel commotion, voices, cops telling people to go home, cars driving past. The commotion ceased once the men in light blue uniforms loaded me into the ambulance and shut the door. As the ambulance started to move, I heard the siren start up again. This time it wasn’t distant. This time it stayed with me all the way to the hospital as I looked at the ceiling on the inside of the ambulance. I tried to turn my head and look around.

“Hey,” said a voice next to me, and one of the men in the light blue uniforms leaned over me so that I could see his face. “Remember, don’t move your neck until we get to the hospital.” I started to feel scared, scared like I felt when I was a child, when I was in Detroit Children’s Hospital ten years earlier, when a doctor, before giving me a spinal tap, told me that if I moved while the needle was inside of me, then I may never walk again. Fuck Gullian-Barre Syndrome.

“Am I gonna be alright?” I asked the man.

“Yeah, you’ll be fine,” he said, smiling. “Believe it or not, I’ve seen a lot worse.”

 

Alleys

Standard

14200 Hazelridge

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