Say Nice Things About Detroit (16 page)

BOOK: Say Nice Things About Detroit
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“That for Dirk or Detroit?” Marlon asked.

“Must be Detroit,” Dirk said. “This here is what they call a pre-owned vehicle. The last customer put that D on.”

“How 'bout I take it for a spin?” Marlon asked. He said it like he was joking, but he hoped to get a yes. He just wanted that feeling, cruising neighborhoods in a fine car. He'd stay west, he decided, away from the trouble areas, streets where no one would take a shot at him. “Fifteen minutes,” he said to Dirk.

Dirk looked at Natalie.

“Buy me dessert?” she said.

Dirk handed Marlon the key, which wasn't a key at all, just the thing you needed to get the engine to start. First thing, then, was to get the CD off and find a radio station; you couldn't be cruising Detroit to that Motown Dirk liked as though it were still 1966. And then he was off, didn't leave any rubber in case Dirk was still watching. He drove south to the river, then a little west and up to a couple blocks he knew where there were a few bars and maybe a few girls who might want a ride. He ran the AC but kept the window down and the reading light on so he could be seen, and damn if the first person who called to him wasn't Elvis. Told him to stop.

Elvis was scary because he never, ever showed anything that might be construed as human emotion. Never laughed or chuckled or even smiled. Worse, as E-Call said, you never saw him mad. “That's scary,” E-Call said. “You never see a dude when he's mad, how you gonna know when you got a situation?”

Marlon felt he had one now.

“What is this?” Elvis said, dry as sawdust.

“What?” He was pulled to the curb on the wrong side of the street, facing into traffic. Elvis had this one scary beast with him, a guy Marlon knew but had never spoken to. This was Dre. Marlon never dealt directly with either one. E-Call did that and it frightened him, and that was good enough reason for Marlon to stay away.

“This is how you're on high alert?”

“I thought here, on the West Side—”

“And you're driving a 500 Series now? Where'd you get that bank?”

“Sixty grand easy,” said Dre.

“It ain't mine.”

“Detroit nigger shouldn't be driving no foreign car,” Dre said.

“It ain't yours. You stole it, you're saying,” said Elvis.

“It's my uncle's.” As soon as the words were out, Marlon knew they were a mistake. Saying he stole it was the right answer. The truth was dangerous.


You
,” Elvis said, “got a rich uncle.”

Dre smiled. Behind Elvis and Dre, people walked up the sidewalk but didn't look over, which wasn't normal. People knew Elvis, and no one wanted to witness anything.

Marlon tried to explain. As proof he put on the CD player, and some raspy guy started singing about a girl named Bernadette.

“See,” Marlon said. “It's my uncle's. I wouldn't be listening to that ancient-school shit.”

“You making fun of Levi Stubbs?”

“Who?”

“Where'd you get the money for this car?” Elvis wanted to know.

“It ain't my car,” Marlon pleaded.

“I can find you.”

“It ain't my car.”

Elvis just stared, and Marlon felt like he might piss himself. He looked straight ahead and whispered to the dash, “It ain't my car.” It wasn't right. There was nothing wrong with borrowing a car. If shit went down now, over this . . .

Then, ahead, he saw a cop car turn onto the street. The car came right at him, then flashed its lights. A loudspeaker said, “Move it. Get on the right side of the road.”

Marlon pulled out without looking back. At first he couldn't breathe, and then he was gasping. He headed straight back to Greektown. He turned up the AC and tried to flutter his shirt. His hand was shaking. It took a moment to get a grip on his shirt. It was sticking to him, wet as if he'd been caught in a downpour.

III

T
HEY SAT AT
the wooden bar, eating baklava and drinking coffee, Dirk's left arm resting on the counter. His skin was a rich café au lait color. Natalie stared at the hair on that arm, curly and black.

“Why'd you start shaving your head?” she asked him.

He patted the stubble. “It isn't shaved.”

“Close.”

“Yeah, well, I'm close to bald. Doesn't look too bad, does it?”

“No,” she said, and she meant it. He was a handsome man, with or without hair.

“Shelly says she likes it like this.”

“You two still . . .”

“Yeah,” he said. “We still . . . Whatever ‘still' is. Couldn't imagine my life without her. But she's talking about moving.”

“Where to?”

“Texas.” Natalie knew Michelle was down there, no doubt hoping her parents would keep their distance. Natalie remembered being in her twenties. She should have moved away, like Carolyn did. That was the smart move.

“So go,” she said.

“To Texas? I'd be out of my mind. I already live in a palace. I told Shelly, we can visit as much as she wants. Shelly, she doesn't like the snow. Me, I like it.”

“Why?”

“Well, for one, I know it. Two, I like change, the seasons. Leaves, then colors, then no leaves, then snow, then leaves again. A man can feel the world spinning.”

“Like he's running in place?”

He smiled at her. “Could have used you when I was growing up, sister.”

“Me?” she said.

“Someone to tell me I'm full of it,” he said. She was fairly sure he meant this as a compliment. He often joked with her, and she rarely could decide whether it was with her or at her expense. It was his way. Growing up, she'd always wanted an older brother, and had had no idea she actually had one.

Dirk looked out the window. “Where's that boy at?”

“Marlon?”

“Anyone else got my car?”

“Trying to impress some girl.”

“A girl that rides with you 'cause of your car will take other rides, too.”

“You ever taught that to Marlon?” she asked.

He turned to her. “I've tried to teach him everything I know. Promised his father. It's not easy. I push too hard, I never see him. I let him do what he wants, he runs wild. I can't win with him.”

“You've done all right,” she told him.

“Why do you say that?”

“He's here tonight. So you've made a difference.”

“I used to tell myself if I saved one kid, just one, then it was enough. Just one.”

“Don't shrug like that,” she told him. “It's true.”

“No,” he said. “We tell ourselves lies because we need the justification. The purpose. But I know different now. It's not enough. Not anymore.”

• • •

S
HE THOUGHT HE
was wrong. Change one life and you've justified your own. She couldn't think of a single person whose life she'd made better. Henry, her father's old partner, for whom she still worked, said he couldn't live without her, but she was sure he could go out and find someone to run his office. There wasn't a man who couldn't live without her. And there were no children. Who out there really depended on her, now or ever? So maybe that was where the meaning was.

Marlon walked in the door looking like hell. He'd nearly sweated through his T-shirt, and his brow was wet and clammy. The look of him brought Dirk out of his chair.

“You all right?”

“Yeah, fine. Car's out front. Got a spot right on the street.”

“What happened?” Natalie asked.

Marlon looked at her as if he'd never seen her before. “What you mean?”

“You're all sweaty.”

“It's hot out.”

“That car has air conditioning,” Dirk said. “I left it on, in fact.”

“I drive with the windows open. Like the fresh air.” He put the key in Dirk's palm. “So, we're done.”

“You're making the move,” Dirk said.

“Tomorrow,” Marlon said. “The afternoon, like.”

Dirk smiled and then did something Natalie didn't expect. He reached forward so quickly she thought he was grabbing Marlon, as if to keep him from getting away, as if he were trying to control the young man. The way you'd control a criminal. Instead he just hugged Marlon, sweaty as he was. It was a sight. Dirk was three or four inches taller and much thicker. He whispered something in Marlon's ear, and Marlon nodded. She thought Marlon might be shaking, that he might even cry, but he didn't. When Dirk released him, Marlon turned to her.

“Yo,” he said.

“Yo yourself,” she said back. He smiled.
God,
she thought,
he's really young
. He walked out into the night.

Dirk waited a moment, then walked to the front window and looked out. Natalie followed. “Just checking on the car,” Dirk said. They went back to the counter to get the bill. He was a hell of a man, her brother. Every time she was with him, she saw it. Whatever came his way, he just handled it.

“What did you say to him?” she asked.

“I told him that I believed in him, that I had always believed in him, that I would always believe in him, and that I was just waiting for him to prove me right.”

“And what did he say back?” she asked.

“He promised it won't be long now.”

IV

H
E WALKED OUT
into the night air thinking what he'd do for Shelly. Marlon staying for good would require a grand gesture—a trip to the islands in January, say. It was money he didn't really have—“Touching principal,” Arthur would have called it, and it was Arthur's principal—but he'd spend it. That was also something he'd learned: that when you had to pay, it was better to pay early.

It was a warm night, weather he loved. He loved all weather, even the frigid winter air of a December night, but there was something truly special about the night air in summer, warm and humid but not too hot. He walked twice around the car, looking for damage. He found none. Satisfied, he helped Natalie with her door and got in himself, turned the engine over as he turned down the volume on the stereo. He was amazed to find that Marlon had left the stereo off. It wasn't how Dirk had left it, but it was a good sign. The kid was taking responsibility, thinking about people other than himself.

Natalie didn't want to go home. “Not yet,” she said. “Show me Detroit, your Detroit.”

“At night?”

“It's the time we've got.”

He knew better, but he also knew the city. He'd avoid the truly horrendous spots. First he took her to the old Booker home. The house was still there, but he was surprised to find it had been abandoned, the windows knocked out, the grass in front nothing but weeds and brambles, the roof half gone, with gaping holes open to the night sky. A corpse of a building.

“That's where I grew up,” he said. “With Marlon's father. But everything's gone in this city. Even if you still live here, you can't go back and see where you came from. This was a neighborhood once.” There wasn't a light on the street, or movement of any kind. Dirk opened his window, and the sound of crickets flowed in. He'd last been here two years ago, and someone had been in the house.

“It's sad,” she said.

“It is what it is.”

“Carolyn says I should move out to California.”

“You should go. But I don't know that I could take myself seriously in California.”

“You ever been?”

“Afraid to go,” he told her, and he was. Most of his working life he'd pretended to be something he was not. He was fifty-two years old now and was through with that. He knew who he was, and places like California worried him. What if he got there and found he wasn't that person?

“What are we listening to, exactly?” she asked.

“The Four Tops. They're also part of my Detroit.”

They drove back south to Wayne State. He'd gotten a football scholarship to Western Michigan, but instead he'd decided to rough it out at Wayne because it was a better school and he didn't want to play football for the privilege of his education. There was something abusive about the idea.

“Most guys would have been flattered,” Natalie said.

“You're working for the university,” he said.

“You're playing football.”

“I was in a hurry.”

“To work for the FBI?”

“To be my own man.” That was all. He had relied on others for so long—his whole life—and he wanted to be beholden only to himself. He'd worked in the library shelving books. Libraries were full of almost nothing but books back then, and he liked the job because he liked books. There was pleasure in handling them, their texture, that odd musty smell when he opened a book that hadn't been touched in years. When he married Shelly and she wanted their library to be without dust jackets, he'd felt right at home.

“There was a bar there,” he said on Cass, pointing to a dark storefront. “Probably our main hangout.”

“Who's we?”

“Some of my friends—you know, the overserious, never-going-to-smile black students. I was president of that society. Fighting segregation in the streets, practicing it in the cafés.”

“You wouldn't let whites sit with you?”

“None tried,” he said.

“I would have.”

“Maybe, sister. But you're family.”

“I would have liked to hear you explain that to your black never-going-to-smile friends.”

“They'd have been okay with it, maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“Look,” he said, “I've got a white family, and I've got a black family, so I can tell you this: black people are pretty much like white people, except for one thing—black people got to deal with white people. And that changes you.”

They moved south, all the way to the river. “The Ren Cen was going up then,” he said. “That was supposed to be the renaissance.”

BOOK: Say Nice Things About Detroit
7.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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