I hold onto this story for its bittersweet flavor that pulls me right back to Eight Mile Road. I feel it in my throat on days my heart rises up at odd, surprising moments. I savor it, even as it hurts when I swallow it back down.
Nobody’s getting married. Nobody’s hurting anybody else today. I’m living in my folks’ basement—which I did for a couple of decades off and on. The basement, where, when you go there, they have to open the heat vent in the rafters.
December, pre-Christmas, and Rita calls. Late morning, but I’m still asleep, hungover, as I often was over a couple of decades off and on. My mom doesn’t care. She hollers down the stairs: Phone Call!
Rita wants me to help her pick out a Christmas tree. “I don’t want to do it alone,” she says. Out of the blue, though no blue exists in gray December skies in Detroit. Grays create the blues, and we both had them.
I slumped gratefully into her car. I usually got drunk on beer or cheap wine, but the holidays called for doing shots—or, more specifically, a group of Eight Mile friends had called for the shots, friends that went for the hard stuff, year round, unlike me, the college boy. No saying no to those guys—one of the reasons I ended up at Alba in the first place, thinking it’d be my little monastery in the middle of Michigan, smaller than my high school, with some vague religious affiliation. Like a dry-out camp for drunks like me.
The short version is that I learned quickly that a nonbeliever in a monastery is still a nonbeliever.
“Hey,” Rita said. Her car smelled vaguely of pot and patchouli, which I suppose did not make her distinct from a whole range of young women back then, but I always associate it with Rita.
“Hey,” I said back. Chrysler Imperial. Bigger than she needed, but that was just the Detroit multiplier—everybody had a car bigger than they needed. Bench seat up front. She bent her head to get a good look at me.
“How ya doing? Rough night?”
I hadn’t eaten anything. I had that taste in my mouth, the stupid taste. I groaned for a lack of a better word or words.
We got stoned enough so I was feeling human again. She took me to Brays Bellybusters, our local equivalent of White Castle, for the 6 burgers/$1.50 special. I was in Brays once when this guy who had a knife sticking in his side asked the grill cook to call 911, then sat down at the long aluminum counter. Someone bought him a coffee that he sipped while he waited.
I wanted to say I bought his coffee, but I can’t lie like that in a story about Rita. We based our whole friendship on not lying to each other. At Alba College, it was an unspoken pact between us, the two white-trash representatives/refugees/rebels without a cause from Eight Mile High to maroon ourselves there.
By the time we got to the tree lot—an old used car joint rearranged with trees and sprayed with dry needles—the sun had, against all odds, emerged, turning the sky a blue you had to squint up into and believe in.
An unshaven older man, whiskers blotched gray, wearing a shabby green jacket repaired with a crudely sewn blue-jean patch, sat on a stool leaning against the abandoned shack of the used car dealer. Apparently, his arrangement with whoever owned the lot did not include a key to get inside. Nobody wants to sit outside for hours in Detroit in December. Even the drunken ice fishermen on the Detroit River have their forlorn porta-potty-sized shacks.
“I don’t think he’s working on commission,” I said as we got out of the car. If you’ve never gotten stoned in a car in winter, then stepped into cold sunshine, I highly recommend it. The pure cold rushes up your nose and you feel briefly awakened, as if the car door created a vacuum when you opened it, and everything loose and buoyant gets sucked toward you.
That’s how I remember it. Maybe it depends on who you’re with.
I used to correct people—or think I was correcting people—on their memories, but memories don’t need correction, I’ve finally learned. What fun would it be if we all remembered everything the same way? If we couldn’t make shit up and add it to memory like fertilizer?
Rita’s squinting and smiling this crooked little smile that any random stranger might fall in love with, even old Gruffy McDuff on his stool—one of those overturned five-gallon white buckets, I see, as we approach his scowl.
I too am unshaven. I too would have matched his scowl if it hadn’t been for the telepathic morning phone call from Rita.
Did I tell you she was a telepathy major?
Did I tell you they tore down the Brown House in Alba to widen Center Street to create a one-way loop back down Main Street the other way, for no apparent reason, since Main Street is dying, every other storefront boarded up due to the Wal-Marting of America that’s even kicked K-Mart’s ass down the road?
What are we gonna do? We’re gonna buy a goddamn Christmas tree from this old chain-smoking geezer who’s already marked his territory with cigarette butts spiked in the snow around him like dud firecrackers.
We don’t like those spikey scotch pines, even though they’re cheap. We pick a balsam fir—scraggly, but they smell great once you get them inside. Rita’s parents are on borrowed time, and Rita’s paying the interest on that time to keep them alive. Her father’s last Christmas at home.
“Do you ever get monks and monkeys mixed up?” I asked.
“No, EJ, I don’t,” she said.
In addition to that smile, that was another thing that made me love Rita: she still called me EJ—okay, dumb nickname, but it’s what they called me at Eight Mile, and she called me that at Alba as part of our private code. When she called me EJ, a door opened and the warm light of her house on Archangel Street came rushing in. I wish that she’d had a high school nickname, but I don’t recall one. Sometimes I sang her name in “The Name Game” song, but that didn’t count for much, since just about everybody knew it. That, and “The Clapping Song.” God bless Shirley Ellis.
“Them balsas smell nice,” the man said, helping me tie it to the roof of Rita’s car reflecting gold in that sudden, sustained miraculous sunshine. Even some snow was melting, creating dark puddles that drained into the sewers along Eight Mile Road. We could see the laughing, spinning donkey on the top of Bray’s Bellybusters holding up a giant burger on one of his hooves, and a milk shake in the other. Cash only, to this day.
“Hey, I just figured something out,” I said. It was like the rough hand of God shook me with a deep insight into the meaning of life. You idiot, God was saying.
“The reason they got a donkey up there is because of the name—Brays—get it, donkeys bray!”
“Where did you get this dim-widget,” the guy said, yanking the rope tight, then cutting it with a large and perhaps illegal switchblade.
Rita laughed, and the man laughed, and I, who had never been called a dim-widget, laughed also.
The guy held a dirty roll of cash in one hand. I gave him the bills from my wallet, and he added to his wad. With all that cash, he was the perfect customer for Brays. The Bellybuster was their double-decker hamburger, though any burger from Brays was likely to bust your belly. I do not recall an apostrophe, though it should have one in case somebody’s named Bray out there: Bray’s, the house of Bray.
“You’re such a sweet couple,” he said as we did the exchange. Fishing for a tip, we all knew. “You look like newlyweds. Is this your first Christmas together?”
Oh, man, the way Rita blushed. I could feel my face flushing too. If somebody knows how to stop a face from turning red, don’t tell me. It’s one of those pure things left that I don’t think scientists have a bead on yet.
I wasn’t much of a tipper then, and perhaps I am not to this day. Tipping wasn’t part of our repertoire, nor was the word repertoire. We never ate out along Eight Mile Road, or at Alba, except in altered states of late night/early morning. It made us squirm to be served. I could go on about tipping, but I’ll just admit I am a cheapskate, a word we used with confidence and comfort. Makes it even more of a miracle that I paid for Rita’s tree and gave the guy an extra buck.
A man with a dirty wad of bills in his pocket, flipping out your change with greasy fingers, is someone you should probably trust. At that point, it’s too late to do anything about it anyway.
The closest we’d ever come to marrying, and I suppose that’s not very close. But getting married in a rutted used-car lot by an escapee from Carney-ville in sight of Brays would’ve been the perfect spot.
She remembers it differently.
My grandfather lived in a wooden house in Detroit nearly his entire life. Painted it yellow. Easy to find—not a lot of yellow houses on Harding in Detroit. Particularly after nearly every other house was burned or torn down during the tough years of Devil’s Night arson and crack houses. He chained his rocking chair to the rotting porch through a hole he’d drilled in the crawl space beneath. We left that rocker swaying in the wind when we moved him out and abandoned the house to the elements.
The Brown House looked a lot like the Yellow House, but we never had to chain up chairs or even lock the door. I lived in that house for two years and never had a key. None of us did, remember, Rita? I would’ve kept the key if I ever had one.
My grandfather worked as the handyman for the church across the street until they gutted it—St. Rose of Lima—and tore that down too. When they tear down your memories, you have to remember harder, or just let them blur and take whatever shape they’re going to take.
The priest, Father Raymond, was an advocate for the poor who delivered donations across the city with his sidekick driver, my grandfather. Which is why one day my grandfather carried a full-sized harp, the kind they play in heaven, across the street from the church and into his front hallway.
He didn’t want to see it tossed in the trash. Just like he didn’t want to throw away his empty milk jugs, but that’s another story down the long wobbly road. I don’t know how he got that harp in the door. The scale of it was ridiculous in his tiny foyer. Most of the strings were broken or missing, but a few remained.
That day we moved him out to a tiny, tiny house near Nine Mile and Mound, I stood in that hallway—my grandfather did not want to leave, but we were making the move in one trip, knowing it was the only trip we had, since once the truck pulled away, on that rubbled field of Harding, it would be anyone’s ballgame. We’d already had the power turned off.
I plucked one thick string hard, and it thrummed and echoed in the silence of my grandfather standing hands on hips and holding back tears.
Like it sounds in heaven. Like a long blushing moment in a used car lot with a giant donkey looking down on us, as we caught each other’s eyes and held.
Excerpted from The Perp Walk by Jim Ray Daniels. Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.