Say Nice Things About Detroit (5 page)

BOOK: Say Nice Things About Detroit
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“One of your pals?” he asked.

“Naw, Mom wouldn't be talking to them for so long.”

• • •

went upstairs to call her friends—Dirk allowed her a phone jack in her room, but not a separate line—and Dirk and Shelly cleaned up the kitchen. He cleared, then dried. She didn't trust him to wash her good dishes any more than she trusted the dishwashing machine he'd bought her when the last COLA raise came through. This was fine. He liked drying, found it soothing, as he did many domestic chores.

“Everett's coming over,” she said, hands in the soap.

“Great. What night?”

“Tonight. Says he needs to talk to you.”

“What about?”

“He wouldn't tell me, and believe me, I asked at least five times.”

“What time's he coming?”


“Jesus, I'll be asleep by then.”

“Not tonight, baby.”

“You could have checked with me,” Dirk said.

“You'd never say no to Everett.” She handed him the last dish and let the drain suck the water from the sink.

“Will you wait up for me?” he asked.

“I'd like to, but I don't know.”

“Can I wake you?”

She smiled at him. “You'd better make it worth my while.”

• • •

a second vodka soda, careful with the proportions; he even sliced a small wedge of lime, then made a perpendicular cut and ran the meat of the lime around the edge of his glass. A second drink was a rare occurrence, usually saved for the cold-weather holidays, watching the Lions lose on Thanksgiving, or champagne on New Year's, for him always the longest night of the year. Tomorrow wouldn't start till noon, when he had to drive out to Novi to meet Miles, and he was backup tomorrow night on a stakeout, now that Collins's wife was in labor. Dirk hated surveillance. The time-suck (as Michelle would say) nature of it, the utter boredom of watching criminals in their natural habitats.

Dirk heard Everett's pickup park at the curb, and so he had the front door open as Everett walked up. Everett had become a stocky man; tonight he wore the Wayne State T-shirt that Dirk had given him. Everett seemed prouder of Dirk's degree than Dirk did himself.

“Hey, man,” Everett said. Dirk responded with a hey, a handshake that was close, almost a chest bump, the way the football players did it nowadays. “Thanks,” Everett said, and they both understood for what: for seeing Everett on a Tuesday night, late, when they both ought to have been in bed.

“Marlon came home high yesterday,” Everett said once Dirk got him a Strohs and seated him in the living room.

Dirk nodded. No big surprise. Marlon, he suspected, would always be a worry, but he liked the kid, too, liked his spirit, the basic rebellion in him, whether it was sneaking out of the house when he was still in diapers or Crazy Gluing the mailbox shut on the day he expected his grades to show up.

“Michelle ever?” Everett asked, leaving off the words “smoke pot.”

“Not that I know of, but I might not always know. What did you do about Marlon?”

“I grounded him for a month, mostly 'cause I don't know what else to do. He hates me.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he wasn't smoking rocks, so I should relax.”

“The first part's good news.”

“He said you can't stop weed.”

“Might be true,” said Dirk.

“So I'm just supposed to let him be a pothead?”

“No,” Dirk said. He understood the frustration. His cell phone rang, the one the criminals called. Dirk looked at the number. It was Miles.

“It's my job calling,” he explained to Everett.

Miles wanted Dirk to come to a party, then protested when Dirk declined. “It's not personal,” Dirk said.

“And why we got to meet in Novi?” Miles asked. “Had to find it on a map. Nothing but white people out there.”

“So you should feel at home, on account of your mom.”

“You leave her out of this.”

“So don't bring her,” Dirk said. Today he'd received the FBI file on Miles. Miles was his real name. He'd graduated from high school at Liggett School. He'd gotten a 3.5 his first two years in Ann Arbor, which meant he definitely knew where Novi was. With mandatory sentencing, he was going away for a while. It was going to be a pity.

More silence from Miles. Dirk could feel him calculating.

“You don't trust me, don't show up,” Dirk said. He hung up and smiled at Everett. “Sorry.”

“And I got cancer,” Everett said.

• • •

Dirk couldn't believe it. He'd never lost someone so quickly.

He called downtown and then headed for Everett's, figuring he'd have that talk with Marlon now that he had three and a half hours till the stakeout. The talk was the first thing he'd promised Everett the night before. The second was that if Everett didn't make it, Dirk would check in on Patrice, his wife. “That pension ain't much, and she would only get half,” Everett said. The third request was Marlon. “He's gonna need a father. If I ain't around, that's got to be you. I don't know how else to say it.”

There was obvious symmetry to the request, but this occurred to Dirk only later. At this moment, he simply felt that it was right. He would have done anything for Everett, and welcomed the chance to do it. All the relationships he had with his blood relatives—his biological mother, his half-sisters—were hopelessly complicated, burdened with decisions made before he could reason, some before he was born. What he had with Everett was different.

“Whatever he needs,” Dirk promised. “It comes to that, it will be as if he's my own.”

• • •

street at a prowl, the black-tinted windows of his car lowered so Marlon could see him if Marlon happened to be on the street. These streets were working-class black, except for the odd Eastern European holdout who hadn't fled with the rest of the white people twenty-five years ago. The whites here were Ukrainian, Polish, Belorussian, and Dirk found it odd that he even knew this. Come from Africa and you're black. Come from Europe and they got it separated out by neighborhood.

Marlon was standing in the front yard when Dirk pulled in. There was another boy with him, and two others materialized by the time Dirk climbed out of the car.

“Hey, Marlon,” Dirk said. He was a skinny kid, which he must have gotten from Patrice's family.

“Hey, Uncle Dirk.”

“Can we look inside?” asked one of the kids, peering in the car. The kid was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a white guy in mirrored shades pressing a .44 to a puppy's head. Under the photo was a tag line that read, “Say Nice Things About Detroit.”

“What's with the shirt?” Dirk asked.

“What you mean?”

“I don't get it.”

“Like, say nice things about Detroit,” the kid said, “or the white dude shoots the dog.”

Dirk had to admit it was funny. He opened the passenger door and Marlon's three friends stuck their heads inside the car. “A Blaupunkt,” said one. “Real leather,” said another, running his finger across the seat. Marlon hung back.

“What you pay for this?” asked one of the kids.

“It was free.”

“Free? No way.”

“Sure, got it from a drug dealer.”

They all looked at him. Probably they thought he was a drug dealer.

“Sure. You use a car in the commission of a crime, you forfeit the car. This baby now belongs to the U.S. government.”

“Why you got it?” asked the skinny one.

“I work for the government.”

“Yeah, you do,” said the chubby kid.

Dirk showed him the badge. “FBI.” At that the third kid took off running. The others just watched him go without amusement or surprise, as if this were something he did often. In the silence Dirk could feel the heat in the driveway. To Marlon he said, “Let's you and me go for a ride.”

“I'm grounded. Can't leave.”

Dirk went inside to find Patrice. He found her at the kitchen table, facing toward the back of the house, sitting, he realized, in front of two fans. “Hello, Dirk,” she said in that way she had, which, oddly enough, reminded him of his mother.

“How you been, Patrice?”

“Oh, you know. Everett says you're going to talk some sense into Marlon.”

“Nothing Everett probably hasn't said already. Sometimes it helps to hear it from another corner.”

“How's that Michelle?”

“She's good. Growing up, you know. Hardly recognize her sometimes when I come home.”

“You're a lucky man, Dirk.”

“That's true.”

“After you get done with Marlon, maybe you could talk to Everett, too.”

“What for?” Dirk asked.

“Because I know he's sick, and I can't very well help him if he won't admit it.”


Marlon started to put his sneakers on the dash, the way he could in the pickup, and then thought better of it. This interior was sweet. Half a dozen cows must have died just to come up with all the leather. The thing was, it wasn't really Dirk's car. It was more of a loaner from the FBI. Renting a house was one thing, but a car was different. Marlon thought a man should really own his car, even if it wasn't nice like this one. That way, he could always control where he was going.

They were driving on Gratiot, headed down to the Ren Cen. Marlon could see the towers, a white-gray, like the sky.

“Let's ride the People Mover,” Dirk said.

“Why?” Marlon asked.

“Coleman Young built the thing, so somebody's got to ride it. It's your civic duty.”

They climbed the stairs and Dirk paid the fare. When the car moved, Marlon turned to the glass. There was something like a view from the train car, elevated above the street. He looked back to the river and Windsor, forward to Greektown, Tiger Stadium to the west, and the east side, where lots were going back to pasture and you could hear crickets on summer nights.

“Nice view, huh?”

“Man, you can see the whole world up here,” Marlon said.

“That's why we're here,” Dirk said. “I'm trying to lift your vision.”

He took Marlon to Greektown. It wasn't really Detroit, it was like a theater for white people, but Marlon knew Dirk liked it because it was clean. White and black mixed on Monroe Street. Dirk stopped at a bakery.

“It's baklava. Try it. It's made with honey.”

Marlon took a bite. It was sweet and light and sticky. Also good. “This is all right,” he said.

“What's this I hear, you're smoking dope?” Dirk said.

Marlon should have known this was coming. His father had put Dirk up to it. “It ain't nothing,” Marlon said. True enough. The true idiots did other things. From what Marlon could see, getting high harmed no one.

“It's something, all right,” Dirk said. “You ever meet a pothead who did anything with his life?”

“It's the crackheads that's fucked up.”

“Watch your tongue with me,” Dirk said. “I'm not here for my health. I'm here for you. You're thirteen, you've got all sorts of choices to make. But the choices you make now can stay with you your whole life.”

“Gotta decide now to be Mr. FBI?”

“Right now I'd like you to decide not to do drugs. We'll build from there.”

“I know why my father sent you,” Marlon said.


“ 'Cause, like, what's he gonna say? Be like me, work in a smelly steel plant they gonna close anyhow? Don't get no education, drop outta high school?”

“Your father has a high school diploma.”

“GED,” Marlon said. Even the old man didn't stick it out in high school. Dirk, of course, had a college degree, which meant that at this moment Marlon had to stand there and listen to him.

“You know,” Dirk said, “you do drugs, and I can bust you. And I will.”

“Hey, you the one with the big black Mercedes with the Blow Punk stereo and the subwoofer under the back seat. You just like playing Mr. Drug Dealer, if you ask me.”

“I didn't,” Dirk said.

“You did.”

“I didn't ask you, Marlon.”

“I'm just saying.”

Marlon could see he'd hit a chord. Not easy to do with Dirk. The man never got riled. He was cold and calculating, something he probably got from his white mother.

“I risk my life,” Dirk said, “to clean up the streets.
just saying I'd appreciate it if you did your little part.”

“These streets ain't never gonna be clean,” Marlon told him. “I'd rather have the car.”




hey drove to Palmer Woods, her mother silent in the passenger seat, staring blankly out the window. They were in the city limits now, but it was quite nice, streets lined with trees just starting to turn. Dirk had bought a house here on FBI pay. Now Shelly lived in it alone. Michelle was a journalist at a small paper in Texas. Why Texas Carolyn didn't know, but she could guess: Texas was far away.

Shelly had invited them. She wanted to give Tina a photo album, dozens of pictures, all of them now digitally copied, printed, and placed in a leather-bound album. What a family, Carolyn thought, where a mother doesn't have pictures of her son. Certainly there were no framed photos in the townhouse, and Carolyn didn't remember any from their home. Dirk's was a life hidden from sight.

Carolyn asked her mother why she hadn't raised her son.

“The world today is different than it was then. I did what I thought was best for him.”

“By giving him away?”

Her mother turned from the window, looked at her. “You know nothing,” she said.

“I'm just asking, Mom. You sent your son to live with someone else. Why?”

“I am through talking about it.”

• • •

brick, elegantly laid out, with a turret at each end and a Tudor-style roof. The front door was wood and enormous. When Shelly swung it open she seemed small, though in fact she was just shy of six feet tall.

“Oh, I'm so glad you came,” Shelly said, as if she half expected that they wouldn't. She led them to the living room, lined with bookcases, each book without its dust jacket. Shelly offered drinks.

“A vodka tonic,” Tina said.

It was two in the afternoon.
What the hell,
Carolyn thought.

“Make it two.”

Carolyn sat on the couch with her mother. They looked at the album, lying there on the table. Her mother made no move for the book. Carolyn was curious; her mother, she guessed, was fearful. Carolyn tried to imagine what it might be like to live here, among the long shadows and all those books without covers. It held a certain appeal. Sometimes in California she felt depressed by all the light.

“Are you okay?” she asked her mother. Lately she asked this often. Carolyn felt the loss of Natalie deeply, as if some vital part of her were missing. She knew she would never be the same, but Natalie was her sister and not her child, and nothing she felt could compare to what her mother was going through.

Shelly returned with the drinks, carried on a silver platter, a white wine for herself.

“Please,” she said, pushing the album at them. “Take a look.”

Shelly had, curiously, organized the photos backward, with the older Dirk first. Tina slowly turned the pages. There were a half-dozen pictures of Dirk with Natalie and Carolyn (few of which Carolyn remembered), several pages of Dirk as a boy with his surrogate family, one or two with a man who must have been the one who fathered him, and, at the end, a very young Dirk, perhaps six months old, held by his mother. Carolyn had never seen a photo of her mother from that time. Tina looked a lot like Natalie.

“Wow, Mom,” Carolyn said. “Look at you!”

Her mother was crying. She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. What it must have been like then—young and beautiful in a new country with a black baby.

“They're great, aren't they?” Shelly said.

“Where did you get that last one?” Tina asked.

“Dirk had it. He kept it hidden in a book. It was very important to him.”

“Oh God,” Tina said. “I didn't know what to do.”

“About what?” Carolyn asked.

“About Dirk. How to raise him. It was a different time.”

“You did marry a black man,” Shelly said.

“I knew it was a little unusual, but I didn't think it would be such a big deal here in Detroit. In America.”

“But it was a big deal,” Shelly said.

“Oh my, yes. It was as if I'd broken the law, which I had, really. It wasn't allowed in Michigan then. So we got married in Ohio.”

“That was a pretty good hint,” Shelly said.

“Yes, but I ignored it. We were young, and in love.”

Carolyn found that she'd finished her vodka. She would have liked another.

“Joseph,” she said. She turned to Carolyn. “That was Dirk's father's name. We were strangers to each other. When it became clear we weren't going to spend our lives together, I think we both felt it would be better if Dirk grew up in a Negro household. That's what you called it back then. Even the words were different.”

“Didn't you miss him?” asked Shelly.

“I visited,” Tina said. “I wrote him letters. You have to understand, I believed it was what was best for him. A black child growing up with whites? It just didn't happen. But I took him on excursions. He loved the Henry Ford Museum, so I took him, probably once a month until he was a teenager. He loved it there, the old cars kept just so. When he got older and he was living with the Bookers, he really just wanted to be with his friends. It seemed easier for everyone to let things be.”

Shelly seemed to know this story. Carolyn remembered when she first learned of Dirk. She was at the dinner table when her mother told her she had a brother. “I was married once before I knew your father. My first husband and I had a son, your half-brother. He'd like to meet you.”

He'd like to meet you.
It was a clever way to put it. A half hour later Dirk pulled up in one of those big black cars he drove. He got out, six-three, a big 'fro, long, long legs covered in jeans, a brown T-shirt covering half of his biceps. He was black. Carolyn's breath caught. Natalie laughed. She was about fifteen then.

“Your first husband was black, Mom?” Natalie asked right then. She immediately loved Dirk. Carolyn envied how open Natalie could be to everything; it was one more thing she missed about her sister. Carolyn was always more reserved. At first she had felt almost offended by the existence of Dirk. Secrets—important secrets—had been kept from her.

Carolyn noticed that during Dirk's first visit her mother stood back, almost out of the way, as if she were merely an observer of the events. Carolyn came to understand that her mother was embarrassed by her history but proud of Dirk. Natalie said that he'd been in line to run the Detroit office of the FBI, but that he'd retired instead. Their father, it turned out, had left him money.

• • •

never came. It wasn't to be that kind of visit. They stood.

“The Bookers weren't at the funeral,” Tina said.

“Sylvia and Tom are dead. Patrice has disappeared, and Everett, as I'm sure you know, died. His son, Marlon, is still around. He stays here every once in a blue moon.”

That seemed to settle things. Soon they were out the door. For the first time in hours Carolyn thought of David, what he might be doing, and then of Marty. She wondered if her problem was simply that she'd had it too easy, what with parents who kept her and raised her in comfort, with white skin and blond hair. Dirk had had none of that, and yet looking at those pictures, she thought he looked happy enough. Of course, if a picture was worth a thousand words, it was also true that often none of those words were true.

Her mother sat next to her, seatbelt across her overcoat, hands clasped over the photo album in her lap. They were on the expressway now, driving fast by the gray walls.

“Do you regret it, Mom?”

“Regret what, exactly?”

“Leaving Dirk's father. Giving up Dirk.”

She exhaled.

“I guess that's a yes,” Carolyn said.

“It's years too late for that now,” Tina said.


his parents, pulling his mother's suitcase, his gait intentionally slow so as not to run them over. He wondered what genius had put wheels on suitcases, and why, say, Ford or GM hadn't thought of it first.

His mother leaned against his father and he against her, so that their shoulders touched, leaving a teepee of light between them. Finally they reached the front door and it slid open. In they walked. The home was bright and clean, but there was something ominous about the place—the shiny counters, the potted plants with leaves made of cloth. His mother wasn't coming out.

It smelled like a hospital. They followed a woman, Sally, to a door where Sally punched in a security code, as if the door led to an airport jetway. After walking two hallways they came to his mother's room. It was small, but big enough for a bed, a desk, a dresser. David felt incredibly sad, and worse still because his mother so quietly accepted her fate. David lifted the suitcase onto the desk. The case was heavy, dense as a bookbag. With the added exertion, he had to gasp for air.

“It's okay,” his father whispered in his ear.

Framed photos half filled the suitcase—the photos were suggested by the home—and David placed the frames on every available surface. He hung a few on the hooks left by the last inmate. The photos showed his mother as a younger woman. There were several of David, and a few of the whole family together. There were two of Cory, and David put them up without looking too closely.

His father unpacked his mother's clothes, a task David was happy to avoid. He didn't want to handle his mother's intimate things. Of course, there was no underwear. Diapers, his father had mentioned, were provided by the home, their cost added to the monthly fee.

David stopped to look at his mother. She sat on the bed, said nothing, hardly moved. Part of him wanted her to scream out in rage. The other part hoped she didn't really understand what was happening.

“Maybe you want to wait at the car,” his father said to him. “After you say your goodbyes to your mother.”

Thirty years,
David thought.
Thirty years till I end up here. I better start living.
He sat next to his mother, hugged her, awkward at first, and then she draped her arm over his shoulder. He'd always had this idea of himself as a dutiful and helpful son, and now he felt the futility of it.

“Bye, Mom,” he said. “See you soon.”

“Fuck it,” she said.


rocked her from sleep. For a moment she didn't know where she was and then she did: in bed, beside David. She knew from the ring it was Marty calling.

“I've got to take this,” she said.

“Sure,” he replied.

She grabbed the phone and headed into his sparse bathroom. He had one towel. It was white, twisted over the rack. Men did things like that—went to the store and bought only one white towel.

“Hey,” she said into the phone.

“Did I wake you?” Marty asked.

“Yeah.” Even this little bit of truth felt like a lie. And it was a lie. She told herself this, if for no other reason than to keep her bearings.

“I guess it's late there.”

“I guess.”

“Okay,” he said. “Look, I'll be brief. I'm calling to ask you to come home.”

“Is something wrong?”

“I just got this big case, we're about to enter negotiations, and Kevin, he's a lot of work, and, well, I could use the help.”

“Just give Elda some extra hours,” she said. It was the L.A. way. If you didn't have time to spend with your family, you paid someone else to do it.

“It's just a lot of work, you know?”

“I do,” she said. She had once convinced herself he was a good father, but really it all fell to Carolyn. Marty didn't even bother to sign Kevin up for sports. He didn't like to be inconvenienced.

“I know it's work,” she told him. “I do it all the time.”

“Yeah, but Carolyn, my job, I make a lot more—”

“This isn't about whose job pays more. It's about you looking after your son for a couple weeks while I help out my mother.”

“Where are you? You sound like you're in a tin can.”

“The bathroom,” she said. She added, “I don't want my mother to hear.”

She heard him sigh. They both knew she would give in.

“I'll be there as soon as I can,” she said.


all the other law offices in all the other towns that David had visited: muted colors, stained wood, thick, sound-absorbing carpet. Nothing too bright or loud for the law. He wondered what ever had made him go into this business. He couldn't remember, exactly. He'd always been a good student, able to write papers and take tests, at the top of his class. What worried him were his abilities in the real world. Perhaps he'd settled on law because it seemed the career that was most like school.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Peter Bergen asked. They were seated in his office. David glanced out the window, south, toward downtown.

“Yes, I'm sure.”

“I checked your references. Everybody loves you. And we could use an estate attorney. But you're the first person we've talked to about a position, let alone the first person we've considered hiring, who'd have to move here to take the job. That just doesn't happen. You're going to have to convince me that you want to move back to Detroit. Most important, convince me that you'll stay.”

“It's a crazy idea,” David said. “I was twelve years old the last time this city was on an upswing. It's been going downhill for years, but I want to be back. For me, this is the only real place.”

“Real place?” Bergen asked.

“Yes,” David said. “Real. This is the place where I first knew my family, where I learned what the seasons are, where I first felt the cold, the true cold, the cold that makes your nose crinkle and your spit bounce. Also the heat, and the sucking sound that car tires make on asphalt in the summer heat that seems impossible in a place that can get so cold. I learned to ride a bike here, to throw a ball and to catch one. This is where I got my heart broken by every sports team, over and over. I had my first kiss here, fell in love for the first time, and now I'm back because I want to be back and I don't give a damn about how the city has gone down the tubes or its poor prospects for the future. I'm connected here. It's home.”

BOOK: Say Nice Things About Detroit
3.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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