Finalist, 2019 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction
It was after the first snow when I learned Detroit was built on a salt mine. The Mazda was idling next to a salt truck at a red light and Dad was talking about the freezing point of water in proportion to the percentage of saline in a solution. He’s always trying to teach me something. I still don’t know why the salt makes the ice melt, but sometimes I think about that great subterranean cavern, where men in helmets must be chiseling away, trapped in the dark.
All winter the trucks scatter salt along the avenues that crisscross the city, turning them into muddy canals. They stay off the smaller side streets, though, and icy ruts form when slushy tire tracks freeze overnight. Last week the Mazda got stuck at the end of the driveway and we were late for school. I told Dad the Volvo never gets stuck. He called the Volvo a goddamn lemon.
It veers toward the curb now, bobbing like a boat over the ruts in front of the driveway, Mom its tiny captain. Her silver hair blows in the wind as she gets out and she does a little hopping dance through the deep snow until she reaches the walkway. Dad cleared it yesterday with a fast and furious scraping, his breath billowing while he heaved and tossed the snow over his shoulder, cursing the cold. Now, Mom stomps her cowboy boots on the concrete, as if he had cleared the path just for her, as if it still led home.
I wave from behind the beveled glass of the front door and she waves back with one hand, using the other to clutch the collar of her black leather jacket around her throat. If I stand just right, I see her double; if I close one eye, she disappears.
Dad opens the door before she gets to the steps. “All right, take care, see you soon,” he says, pushing me off to meet her. The flap of rubber drags along the vestibule floor as Dad shuts the door. Mom squats down on the walkway and opens her arms, hugging too tight.
“Did you grow?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“I think you grew,” she says, standing up to get a better look. “At least an inch — maybe two!”
It’s not true. I’m still the smallest in class. Pipsqueak, Dad says. Hush up, Pipsqueak. Anyway, it’s only been two weeks. Two weeks here, two weeks there. That is the arrangement. First, they said it’s called separation, like oil and vinegar. Now it’s called divorce.
Mom inserts the key into the ignition, singing pretty please, pretty please. The Volvo doesn’t get stuck like the Mazda, but sometimes it just won’t start.
“Daddy said it’s a lemon.”
“It’s temperamental,” she says with a laugh, revving the gas as it springs to life. “But the heat always works. At least it keeps us warm, right?” The heat is on full blast and it feels good to be moving. The trunks of tall elm trees jabbed into white lawns look like candles on frosted cakes.
“Are we going to see the mummies and knights?” Her little apartment over the Langley’s garage is only a block away, but on Sundays the museum is free.
“Of course. And the fountain — I have pennies! We just need to stop at ye olde Bank of Sheena on the way.” Sheena’s is a couple of doors down from the hospital. There’s a sliding window under a sign that says LICENSED PHARMACY. Most people go there to buy beer and cigarettes, though. Mom goes there to cash checks.
She turns onto Jefferson and joins the steady flow of cars. Sunday afternoon rolls past the window. Riviera Supermarket is closed and the parking lot glitters with broken glass. The windows at Clock Fine Food have been boarded up for months and Royal Crown Cleaners is covered by sliding gates. Today even the stoop of the halfway house is deserted — usually there’s a group of men lighting up cigarettes or looking down to step on the butts. Only the nursing home seems to be open for business, neon ablaze.
Sometimes the phone rings during dinner and Dad mumbles about hemoglobin and EKGs, the receiver clamped between his ear and shoulder while he picks at his lasagna. If we have to drive over to the nursing home a nurse gives me a handful of starlight mints and I spin in circles on a chair behind the counter until he’s done. And if I’m already asleep he scoops me out of bed and leaves me on the back seat of the Mazda, covered up with a sleeping bag he keeps in the trunk. Once I woke up from the crackle of a walkie-talkie.
“Don’t worry, baby,” the security guard said, his voice muffled by the glass between us. “Daddy’s on the way.”
Mom parks under the NO STANDING sign in front of Sheena’s, next to the shop with the ropy neon letters in the window: LIVE BAIT. Sheena’s has one of those signs on the door: NO SHOES – NO SHIRT – NO SERVICE. The glass is reinforced with iron bars. Mom needs both hands to pull it open and a bell jingles as the suction yields, releasing a blast of that Sheena’s smell: incense, ammonia and sour milk.
Amir greets Mom with a nod. He mans the register, Fayed the Lotto machine, both of them sealed within a bulletproof enclosure that ascends to the ceiling like an altar. There’s a bulwark of Newports and Kools behind them, rows of candy cascading from the countertop – Good and Plenty, Lifesavers, Starburst: names that always promise so much more than what’s inside the wrapper.
Fish-eyed mirrors mounted on the walls and ceiling give Amir and Fayed a view of the entire store. I can feel their eyes following us down the narrow aisle. Mom hands me a canister of Quaker Oats and grabs a package of toilet paper, checking the expiration dates on the bags of bread while I trace hearts in the dusty lid of the oats.
The pharmacy is closed on Sundays, but a group of boys lurks near the sliding window, waiting for it to open. As we approach, one of them steps aside, bumping into the display stand of air fresheners.
“Y’all clear the way,” he says, and all the Little Trees shiver on the hooks as we pass. Vanilla and Strawberry and Pine Forest and Spring Fresh.
Mom heads for the back of the store, where rows of bottles glow behind glass doors. She pulls out a six-pack of Stroh’s and a carton of milk and heads toward the register while I linger, transfixed by the selection of Faygo, wondering: what, exactly, is Rock and Rye?
“Out the way, baby,” says a fat lady in rubber boots. She slides the glass door to the side with a thud and a bottle of Colt45 crashes to the floor at the other end of the shelf, splashing over the feet of a skinny woman with cornrows. They start arguing about whose fault it was and I scoot over to Mom while the mess trickles under the refrigerators, filling the air with a skunky smell.
Fayed ducks out of a little door in the Plexiglas shelter with a grey mop and the skinny woman bolts toward the exit with a bottle under her arm. The fat lady points at the door, screaming, “Thief!”
“No, no, I don’t want no more trouble,” Fayed says, leaning the mop against the wall and pushing the fat lady toward the exit. “You go now, too, lady – out!”
“Get your A-rab hands off me,” she says. The group of boys over by the Little Trees laughs and hoots and whistles.
There’s a bang like a gunshot when the mop slips from the wall and drops to the floor. The boys are jumpy, jostling each other and banging into the Little Trees.
“You break, you buy,” Amir’s voice crackles over the PA system, which makes him sound both loud and faraway. The old man ahead of me and Mom in the line for the register just keeps counting pennies out of a paper cup. He has salt stains on his shoes.
One of the boys shouts, “Damn, bitch, go home!”
On her way out, the fat lady turns around and shouts back, “Fuck y’all motherfuckers,” inadvertently holding the door open for a delivery guy pushing a dolly. Like the old man with the pennies, he minds his own business, quickly restocking the Hostess display and getting a signature on his clipboard before charging back out, trailing parallel lines of mud.
It’s quiet now. The delivery guy has left the rack packed with downy pink Sno Balls, glistening black Ding Dongs, perfect golden Twinkies – all nestled two-by-two in pristine cellophane packages. The old man is scratching the grey crud off a curling strip of lottery tickets and Mom is standing on tiptoe, smiling up hopefully into the Plexiglas, clutching her checkbook in one hand and teasing her hair with the other. I’m wondering how they get the white stuff inside the Twinkies.
“I’m sure it’ll clear by Thursday,” Mom says in her late-night telephone voice. “Or Friday. Friday might be better. Could we maybe just say Saturday?”
“Okay, look – for you I hold one week, but next Monday I cash,” Amir says. “How much you want?”
“Thirty? Or, forty – could I do forty?”
“No problem.” The door jingles as the boys leave.
“Oh, that’s great,” she says, signing the check. “Thanks, Amir, thanks a lot.”
She tucks the pale yellow slip of paper under the six-pack, and rolls back her shoulders, standing a little taller while she waits. Amir swivels the open side of the turntable away from her and packs everything into a brown paper bag, slapping down two twenties next to the bag before turning it back to her again.
He looks out over Mom’s head, shouting next as she grabs the bag and the money. I hold the heavy door open with my back. Mom turns around to wave on her way out but Amir doesn’t notice.
“You know,” she says, unlocking the car door, “I once saw Jimmy Hoffa cross the street right here.”
She’s always telling me stuff like this. It feels like being handed someone else’s dripping ice cream cone. I follow her gaze across Jefferson. The letters on the roof of the big building say UAW but it doesn’t sound like a word. All I know is that I should have asked her to buy me a pack of Twinkies. I wonder if I should still ask while she walks around the back of the car to the driver’s side, but when she opens the door I can tell it’s too late.
“Lock the door,” she says. She pushes the paper bag onto the uneven space between the seats and the contents spill over onto my lap. One of the boys from the Little Tree display leans against the hood of the car. Another one tries to open the trunk. A third bends down to look in the window.
Mom jabs the key into the ignition: It turns over with a groan but doesn’t start. The boys try the handles but the doors are all locked. She turns the key, pumping the gas pedal. Pretty please. There’s only that choking sound. Goddamn lemon.
The boy outside the window draws a circle with his finger as if he’s dialing the operator, a gesture to signal that I should roll the window down. Sometimes I dial the operator when I’m bored. The operator always asks if it’s an emergency and when I say no she tells me to hang up.
Mom grabs my arm and the boy changes fingers: a different gesture, the one Dad makes when another driver cuts in front of him. Christallmighty goddamnit! I’m not allowed to swear. Once, I said shit and Dad said he’d wash my mouth out with soap if I said it again. So I wrote damn on the bathroom wall at school.
Now the boy pounds against the glass with the side of his fist. I look at Mom and she tries to smile. It doesn’t work, though. Her eyes crinkle up but the corners of her mouth just twitch, as if a connection has been cut. Shoes scramble over the windshield and the car begins to quake. It’s like a storm without rain, metallic thunder above as the sheet of steel dents and pops under the weight. I’m afraid to move. I can see all the Little Trees shivering. Then suddenly I’m leaning against the door as the car tilts toward the curb. It evens out again just as quickly. Feet smack the pavement, two-by-two. As the boys run off, a bus drives by, splashing dirty slush onto Mom’s window.
She tries again and the engine sputters to life. Cold air shoots out of the vents full-blast.
“Are you okay?” Mom reaches for my hand.
“That was really scary, wasn’t it?”
“Why did they do that?”
“I don’t know, honey,” she says, squeezing my hand, “I don’t know.” Then she takes a deep breath and pats herself gently on the chest as if she’s burping a baby that isn’t there. The carton of milk sweats on my lap. Another missing kid in black and white. Have you seen me?
“Are we still going to the museum?”
“I don’t know. You still want to?”
“Sure.” I’d rather just go home, but she doesn’t live there anymore.
We park on Farnsworth and take the side entrance. It’s crowded but I cut a path through the narrow galleries, dodging clusters of cashmere-clad matrons and bypassing shipwrecks with blustery skies until I get to The Nut Gatherers. As soon as Mom catches up I decide it’s time to move on.
Upstairs is a painting that she likes. It looks like a Ping-Pong table, but without the net — just a red rectangle with a white line down the middle that cuts the shape in half. When I look at The Nut Gatherers I’m in a different world, lazing around on a blanket, tucked away in that grassy clearing behind a dark cluster of trees, safe in the barefoot seclusion of my secret hideaway. I can never endure the peaceful scene too long, but I don’t get what Mom sees in the Ping-Pong table. She just keeps staring at it so I have to pull her away. We’re traveling back in time, where the rooms are dimly lit.
“It’s so delicate,” she whispers in front of a painted sarcophagus. She likes pretty things, and so do I, but I need to slip off to the next room, the one with the quiet gore: four small stone vessels, where the warm organs went their separate ways before the bodies were mummified. The lid of each container has a different head: jackal, falcon, baboon, human. I read the sign on the wall next to the vitrine, skipping over the explanation of what the different animals symbolized so I can get to the part about how the innards were pulled out through the nose. Of the tool that was used, it says: similar to a crochet needle. My mind keeps darting away from the image it wants to form, settling instead on the blue potholders I made at school.
“Here you are,” Mom says. “I couldn’t find you.”
“Let’s go to the fountain.” It’s always the same: I can’t wait to get to ancient Egypt, and then I can’t wait to leave.
A winding stairway leads back down to the first floor, where we pass through a marble colonnade and into a brightly lit court. Under a glass ceiling, the fountain splashes in the middle of the tiled floor, surrounded by potted ferns and calla lilies. Richly hued murals cover the walls, depicting a factory floor teeming with workers and crowded with hulking machines. Mom points to the image above the industrial scene, where a baby grows within the bulb of a plant, sending pale, tentacled roots out into dark soil.
“Close your eyes and make a wish,” she says, giving me a penny for the fountain. She throws one in, too. Plop. Plop. When I open my eyes, hers are still closed.
I take her hand and lead her through the narrow passageway, into the vast and echoing space. The museum’s main entrance lies ahead, wide white steps that spill onto Woodward Avenue. Outside it’s snowing again and the afternoon is fading, but inside the great hall enormous chandeliers cast down warm pools of light. The suits of shining armor stand at attention along the walls, weapons poised. The etched and gilded metal sparkles with chilling magnificence, all traces of battle erased.
I face the knights one by one, standing on tip-toe, trying to peer through the slits in their hinged helmets. It’s impossible to imagine what it was like to creak off into the onslaught in one of those heavy skins of steel. I know the armor was their protection, but I wonder if they also felt trapped, like the men down below in the dark, under the weight of the city, chiseling away at the salt.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Ed Dunens