by Leslie Brown
In the summer of 1969 I told my mother II was going to sublet an apartment in the Cass Corridor. I’d always wanted to live near campus, and this was my last chance, my final quarter of graduate school at Wayne State University.
Good girls, decent girls don’t leave home until they gets married.
She went off, as if reciting a script about single women based on a blues singer’s lyrics.
A single woman in an apartment, a woman without family.
Had she forgotten that my husband had deserted me, I was one of those divorced women? Neighbors be wondering: What man or men coming and going to her home: the postman, delivery man, repairman or door-to-door salesman? How long was the visit?
Husband look at that woman walking down the street, they give her a quick sly smile, quick muted sigh…You never know.
They got to be the saddest…No, no, you don’t want to be one of those women.
“Mama, I have my friends, besides this is 1969 not 1950, the people I’ll be living near won’t care about whether I’m married or not. They mind their own business.”
Betsy, the building caretaker wore a shapeless cotton housedress. She is solidly built with saggy-arms. She stared at me with a look that said, “Don’t fuck with me.” I thought she should be cast as a peasant in a Brecht play.
She told me no pets allowed, but I see a wet puddle of smelly cat piss outside my door. I don’t see many renters, but one day I did see a young woman at the front door. She was pushing a baby carriage. Inside the child’s head was oddly angled, as if his head was too large for the carriage. The woman’s face was pale as parchment. Her eyes looked like they had forgotten how to blink. I held the door open for her. She hit the door post as she forced her body and the carriage through the opening.
This area had once been the home of working class whites. Oh yes, I am one of those Detroit educated type, who can’t help but identify people by social class and color. A few people — students and people of indeterminate age — walk around the street during the day.
I rearrange the furniture in the apartment and cover the window with a minty green sheet that gives a comforting glow to the room. I read, write, make plans, listen to music on my FM radio, walk to class, go to the library. Days and hours pass, I walk. Eat. Sleep.
Did I come too late? The artists, writers, musicians, the hangers-on and the drop-outs, are not around. They say Ann Arbor is the scene, no they just wasting away in their mother’s basement, no I see lots of them folks give up and work at Ford’s. Some say it was the insurrection in ’67. Others say it’s the police and narcs’ pot arrests made the city a war zone, nobody lives here that don’t have to.
Yeah, the smart ones moved to Ann Arbor.
I take my bags from the counter and stumble into the street. I feel from the scorching heat, intensified by the heat-reflecting buildings, streets, and cars. I’m in a neorealist film where sunlight tears through a gray-black world.
This walk from the store takes me past a deserted field where apartments and houses stand, waiting to be destroyed in the name of urban renewal.
A brother with a large Afro walks toward me. He smiles, “Foxy lady,” he says. I grin and reply,
“Hendrix?” He nods. The traffic light turns green and I quickly slip across the street with a quick look back to see if he followed.
I’m annoyed with myself. All I need to do is finish this last section of my thesis. I have paper, pencil, and books, articles, but I keep writing the same sections over and over. I spend most days avoiding the summer heat sitting behind my minty green curtains drawn away and listen to music on my FM radio: What am I avoiding?
I broke the lenses of my regular glasses, so I wore my prescription sunglasses to class. I slouched down in my seat. Usually I smiled and was chatty, but today I scowl. The professor looked at me, alternating between a solemn stare and a nervous twitch.
Well, I was irritated: I had missed my breakfast. I had to wear the sunglasses. And she was a boring lecturer, her droning voice repeated what she had assigned to read in the textbook.
I stared at her twitching lips and pale face. Was my teacher frightened by me? Me? A sullen black girl sitting in her class wearing big black sunglasses, my kinky bush, a huge bouffant, more puff-out-than usual. Tension: was my hair and posture making her think I was expressing black nationalist sympathies?
(Why must I cross examine myself this way?)
But she looked so uncomfortable, like I had become a stranger to her, like she didn’t know me.
Saw my old creative writing teacher on campus last week. She asked, “Have you got a story to give me?”
“No, I’m trying write my thesis. I’m finishing my professional degree. Gotta eat.” She nodded slightly, gave me a sad smile, and walked away.
I went out the backdoor this morning. I heard a voice call out to me. Amazed, I saw Betsy climb out of a dumpster. She wore a thin duster over her housedress, thick cloth gloves and rubber galoshes. Her hair in its usual curled perm like Harpo Marx, the silent Marx brother. “I don’t need more mess to clean up. I stomp on this crap, so it don’t fill up and fall out the bins. The cheap-ass owner only pays to get this hauled away once a week. He wouldn’t even do that if the city didn’t make him.” I smiled and thanked her for her hard work. Hoped she accepts my “I’m late for class” bye as I rushed away.
I didn’t want her to take me to one of the abandoned apartments as she had yesterday. As we walked around she repeatedly told me, “This is what I have to put up with. Damn hippies just disappeared and left this place a wreck. I let them rent here, but they don’t care about keeping things nice. Look, they painted all the walls black. Come here see the filthy bathtub, almost as black as the walls. The refrigerator, you never seen so much rotted food oozing f—king juices. This is disgusting, a massive mess. How can I rent this? It’s gonna take me a week, and I gonna have to hire someone to paint and fix all the stuff they broke. It’s gonna cost.”
I was a witness to her performance of rage and betrayal. I shook my head and agreed with her.
Today, Betsy was standing in front of our building. I wondered if she had been waiting for me. She was talking to a tall black woman. “I thought you two should meet,” Betsy said, “Fern lives on the floor below you.” (Why does she think I want to know this woman?)
Fern said. “We should get together soon.”
Betsy smiled. “You two should do that”
“I have lots of studying to do.”
“Come by Saturday for dinner,” Fern said.
My girlfriend Patty stopped by my apartment. She had moved to Ann Arbor to live in an artist community. Her new project with them was to help manage a punk rock band. The band was playing that night a Detroit club. I was surprised. She and her boyfriend were deep into the avant-garde jazz scene. “ Oh, we moved beyond that kind of isolation, we are mixing it up. Music is music. Yes, our punk group is kind of raw, but they putting out the right message.” She smiled, “You see we have a master plan for the future.”
I vaguely understood the plan she described. They were planning to organize local bands, protect their interests, and get good contracts for them: A kind of UAW for the arts.
Yeah, I’m skeptical and cynical — certain the project will fail — but also jealous of her involvement and enthusiasm. Who knows, they may succeed.
Patty and I had gone to the same high school, but had only become friends in college. We were lost in the midst of the students from schools with advanced academic programs, and they were eager to impress. Patty and I were comfortable with each other. She and I quit college after the first year, but I went back. Patty did not. She had a good secretarial job, but kept close to the campus.
This quiet girl in high school, so slender and self-effacing, was now a striking red head. We sometimes went to lunch together and were a bewildering spectacle to onlookers. Walking beside her in her mini-mini skirt that barely covered her ass, a shapely body that bore size D+ breasts unencumbered by a bra. My clothes more modest, but I had an Afro — still rare in the city, and afro-centric designs and exotic earrings.
To me Patty is like one of those pretty people Joni Mitchell will describe in the song “California”.
Patty gives me her community’s newsletter. An article about LeRoi Jones, explaining his conversion to Islam, his new name Imamu Amiri Baraka, starting the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. Other articles condemn American culture, there were expressions like a tribute to a Paris meeting with expressions like “authentic desires” and “freedom of the imagination” explained.
Last year it was “Mao’s Little Red Book.” She has the dedication of church people wanting to convert me, make me a follower.
We drift back to music: the new Ann Arbor Blues Festival, a trip to hear Chicago Arts Ensemble (So tempting, I’d like to go. But she did not invite me, Anyway, I don’t have the money or time. I see she’s not going to ask me. If I want to go, I’ll have to ask to join them, be a part of the group). I listen to her plans. I do not speak. I think of the papers I must write.
Patty can follow her group, but I’m trying, trying, …trying to make a way for me.
It’s the simple kindness, the sweet gesture that turns me around. Brandon, who sublet this apartment, was in such a rush he didn’t have time to meet me and give me his key. He didn’t trust Betsy with the key. He thought she might deny me the room, and rent it to someone else. So gave the key to the friend who had helped him lug his suitcases to the train. So in some comedic twist, I had to turn to the caretaker (Betsy) for the key to get in his apartment. Brandon’s friend called me a week later. He said that he’d try to bring me the key in a day or two, but I didn’t want to wait. I had to persuade him to give me an address to pick up the key.
The key holder friend displayed a thin, snaggletooth smile. White hair sprouted from his chin. I thought he’d just hand me the key and I’d thank him and leave. Instead, he invited me to sit and handed me a glass of rose wine. It looked diluted, like a blush-colored Kool-aid, no kick, just a bland, hard bite. His pal looks even more haggard, holds his glass up for a refill.
The two men chat. The key holder told a meandering story of a pool table with a girl’s legs stretched across it so her feet fit neatly into two of its pockets. Is this a threat, a proposition, a hope? I fight off gagging from the drink and try not to show embarrassment listening to the story. Should I look bored? I didn’t want to encourage him. I took a tiny sip of wine, wondered if the glass was clean, wondered how safe it was to drink this stuff. As I was silent, he continued, watching me, as I watch him.
He’s a wino loves his wine. I keep telling myself, he has no interest in me. He’s telling a fantasy, let it pass.
The picture: A college girl vs. these down and out winos. Did my brown skin make me a subset of the college girl? How would the law look at us?
Would being a friend of a friend of a friend keep me safe?
The two men laughed; the story ended. I refused more wine, showed my glass was still nearly full. I asked for the key. They were bored with me. I was not playing along, I did not act terrified or voice any objections, I was a lump.
He gave me the key, a wink and sideway grin — victory or irony.
My drawn curtain blocked the sun, but not the heat. All the windows are open, but the air is still and I don’t have a fan. Impatient, sticky with sweat, I spend my frustration with an afternoon nap. Fern’s knocks wake me. Another one of her offers for dinner. My plans for a cereal for dinner is not happening, I forgot to buy milk.
Her smile grows enormous hearing me finally say yes .
Her apartment, like mine, is a small studio. Her male friend greets me. The dinner tasty, steak, rice, and salad and two bottles of wine, quickly emptied. The husband — or not husband, his status unclear — said his daughter had just called. “She is sick, losing her apartment, needs money.”
“How sick?” Fern asks.
“Bad! says something called Hep – hep-titis”
“Still doing drugs?”
“Hey, this bottle’s empty, nothing in the cupboard. “
I can’t remain silent. “Hepatitis, that’s serious!”
I don’t remember how we came to be companions, Fern and I, walking to the liquor store. She gets wine or port, brandy, madeira. Sometimes I buy milk. It is always after dusk when we go for these walks, I enjoy our companionship and exercise.
In short fragments, Fern talks, memories sparkle then fall in an abyss of silence. She married a man who gave her everything. She had expensive perfumes, fur coats, gardenias for her hair, She drank Martinis, and rode in big fast cars. She would go to the 20 Grand to listen to performers like Jerry Butler; and dined in the room where Motown stars ate. I listened, wanting to hear more, what happened after that… but I waited in silence, respectful. (I tried to avoid questioning her. I remembered the scorn of family and neighbors when I asked questions — requesting details, seeking causes, and suggesting alternative actions.) So, I listen quietly, absorbing the night’s cover.
Sorrow, that’s the word, I feel and fight the urge to pity. I push it aside. Other people are better at this. I am merely a companion in the silence, concentrating on exercise, each step, I see as an accomplishment, a goal, for the night. For her this exercise is to please me and to get the bottles of wine, port, madeira, and scotch.
She loved her husband, he loved her. They had a son. I want to ask where is he, but I wait for her to tell me. She never does.
Her husband kicked her out of their bed and made love with other women. She does not speak of time and change, she speaks with a tinge of regret, her words are recitations of loss, the only experience she wants to recall. I have no sense of time in this darkness, my chest is tight, I cannot close my eyes, I listen. “Do you know what it’s like to have a life you’ve always wanted, disappear around you while you’re still breathing?” I am walking next to a woman, mama warned me, Billie Holiday sang, the woman who is consumed in/by memory of loss.
Weeks of listening, I slowly understand this quiet debate forming within me: should I fear her or comfort her. Fear the contagion of passiveness, hers, mine, this place? She was trapped in one of those drinking, slowly dying-cause-he-left-me songs.
I dimly see my childhood vision of hope. It comes to us and hangs around, just in reach, a thin floating balloon.
Someone shot darts in hers. I feel her weight, her unasked request, she wants me to give her hope. I don’t know. We walk in silence. I give a couple of uh-mms, letting her hear my voice, just letting her know, I’m still with her.
Fern’s voice is soft, her words trance-like during these walks, but then a car drops out of the swarm of cars. The driver steps out of his car. Opens the car door. Fern stops talking and stares at the car. She snaps open her purse. More alert than I’ve seen her, she digs inside her purse tugging at a shiny sleek object. The image, I thought a nozzle or a blade. The driver kicks at his front tire, then returns to his front seat. Maybe there was someone inside getting on his nerves.
I laugh, trying to ease the edginess.“
Give me an excuse!” she shouts. She does have a gun! I did not want to continue this walk, but I keep pace with her, hiding my thoughts.
Why am I here? I hoped to live among the creators — artist, musicians, poets and artists, near the inspirers of Broadside Press, and even the anarchists. Here I am in a little room living among rejects, old, young, and in-between doing day work and numbed with drink or dope.
Like my mother, I enjoy music on my radio playing against background silence — as I study, write, or daydream. I expect the music to help me decompress after the night’s sour walk, but the DJ is playing a very dark song. But I cannot persuade myself to turn it off. It is the almost child-like rhythm of strings and thumping drums pulsing with yearning and despair.
The beat tightens and quickens as a male sighs the lyrics in sync with the music, the elements join revealing emotions stressed between elation and panic, rushing high and low. “I don’t know just where I’m going.”* His lyrics echo my feeling, but the words turn alarming, and the beat intense, racing along, I listen, sad and wary, I’m loving the song’s dramatic revelation of the body’s response to heroin.
This is not going to be my choice. This is not where I am going. I keep stepping into other peoples’ stories
Yes, just where am I going? What is my story?
*Velvet Underground, 1967.
About the author:
Leslie Brown is a graduate of American University Creative Writing Program. She has a Masters in Library Sciences from Wayne State University and worked at the Arlington Public Library with teenagers and at Howard University responsible for STEM library services. Recent publications: Short story “Earrings” in greatlakesreview.org/ and two flash stories “Sunday Biscuits” and “Cardamon Bread” in the blog deadhousekeeping.com.