Long Red Fingernails

HEARTACHE ON JOY ROAD 

The sirens go all night in Detroit. Eight hundred homicides the first year I was there. the majority listed as police briefs in the newspaper. Every now and then a killing warranted a separate story.

A 12-year-old Free Press carrier girl was shot to death in a hail of bullets early Tuesday as she delivered a newspaper to a house on Joy Road. Jenny Peach died in hospital, her body riddled with at least 15 bullets. Her father and sister, who were helping her with the paper route, witnessed the shooting from their car.
When police arrived at the house, it was empty. Two hours later, in a traffic stop on Cass Avenue, police arrested Goyo Velasco, 23, and charged him with first-degree murder. Velasco, a convicted drug dealer told police he fired the shots because he thought the car that was driven by the girl’s father was that of a hired killer. State police said there was a contract out on Velasco for a botched drug deal.

Sirens directly below my window now. You won’t get me, death screamers! My name is Guido Michelini. I am an alien with a green card in love with America.

I’m lying on my bed in a room on the fourteenth floor of the Jefferson Hotel. It’s really the thirteenth floor. In the elevator the numbers jump from twelve to fourteen. Who are they kidding? As if that would change anyone’s luck in this city.

CASS CORRIDOR

The Jefferson is a residential hotel on the corner of Bagley Street and Cass Avenue. I have a corner room. Small bathroom, double bed, chest of drawers, two chairs and a table. A window directly behind the bed looks out onto Cass Avenue—the “Cass Corridor,” a surreal strip of sex, drugs and death. There is no screen on the window.

The room contains all I need. No TV. The mind-deadening box is gone, a portable I threw out the window in a state of stoned drunkeness. I’m lucky I didn’t kill someone. It ended up a busted boob tube on the sidewalk. Pedestrians walked around it until a homeless man put the pieces in a shopping cart and pushed off down the street. The absence of the TV gives me a sense of freedom. I just have the Sony radio and tape deck Lynda left behind. Lynda, nineteen years old, long brown hair, slim taut body.Sirens go all night in Detroit.

I’m listening to WRIF Rocking Stereo: The soul’s escaping through this hole that is gaping… and smoking a joint. I’m waiting for Barbara to come to my room. Another woman was in the room earlier, Darlene, eighteen, skinny and black like she jumped out of a Motown song. The contrast between our bodies tangled up in black and white was startling in the half-light on the room.

Sirens swirl around in the darkness outside. I look out the window, looking for Barbara, aka Vampira, long black hair, pale face, bright red lips and long red fingernails. She’s a reporter at the News, the evening paper. I’m a reporter on the morning Free Press.

RUN FOR YOUR LIVES

While waiting around for Barbara, I messed up my chances with Lynda. I phoned her around 8 p.m. She’s a reporter in Windsor on the other side of the border. She told me she was on her way out with another guy.

“You’re too late,” she said over the phone. “I’m not going to sit by the phone waiting for you to call at the last minute. Fuck you!” That had been the general idea.

The sirens stop below my window. What’s this? Is the hotel on fire? I’m too stoned to move. Barbara, where are you?

I’m asleep in my clothes when she comes to my room around 2 a.m. We’re sitting on the bed, both still fully clothed for the first time of being on the bed together. It’s lucky we are.

That last siren. We smell smoke and see it coming through a vent in the wall. I jump off the bed and open the door. Smoke filling the hallway. People in night attire running from their rooms. I grab a reporter’s notebook and Barbara snatches two towels from the bathroom and we start running down the hall. Barbara knocks on doors to rouse residents as we head for the stairs.

The stairwell is filling with people and smoke. We run down the stairs with the towels over our mouths. Around the fourth floor the smoke is black and there is a moment of real fear when we wonder if we should keep going down or go back up. We go down.

DRUNKEN CARNIVAL

We reach the ground floor and run outside. A crowd is gathering in the street. Tenants who got out are guzzling beer out of cans and laughing with the sheer joy of being alive. A crazy, drugged, drunken carnival.

Everybody is looking up. Flames are leaping up the Cass Avenue side the building. Faces of people in the windows, a wall of smoke behind them. A woman on the top floor leans out the window screaming. Horror. Fear. Firefighters doing their thing. Ambulances arriving.

I tear a handful of pages from my reporter’s notebook and hand them to Barbara and we start talking to people in the street, emergency workers we can intercept and the assistant fire chief when we get the chance. We run across the wet black street tangled in fire hoses to the Picture Bar and phone our respective city desks with what we have so far and then run back to the scene.

Four people die in the fire. Many others are taken to hospital. I spend the night at Barbara’s apartment.

If she hadn’t come to my room at 2 a.m. I would have been asleep when the fire spread and it might have been too late to escape. I’d be another frightened face hanging out the window. Saved by a slender young woman from the northwest side, five-feet-five, 108 pounds, raven black hair.

It is in this manner that I am introduced to America.


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Pictures of Christ

His ex-wife threw the photo albums down the incinerator. That’s the effect he had on women—he left scars.

They had been so close. They had believed their marriage would last a lifetime. That’s what the photo albums were for—to keep a record, to maintain that sense of personal history, that continuity.

She told him what she had done in a long-distance phone call. She said to keep her sanity she had to obliterate every memory of him and every memory of their life together—every photograph, every image.

After the divorce and after she turned the pictures into ashes she went back to the Catholic Church. Now, in her barren apartment, there were only pictures of Christ.

”THAT POOR GIRL”

He related the story to his mother, with full emphasis on the word incinerated.  His mother put on a reflective face. “That poor girl,” she said, “how you must have hurt her. I think I’ll write her a letter.”

Not the reaction he was looking for. He told his girlfriend and she said, “Forget about it. Stop brooding. Make a new life with me and we’ll make new pictures.”

That was the right answer, of course. Accept his loss and get on with a new chapter. Quit sifting through fading memories like a father searching for a lost child, trying to recall every detail of a photograph of his mother visiting their little family one northern winter, or of him and his wife and infant son at Niagara Falls. One picture in particular he loved, of his young son and himself, taken in a photo booth of all places. He could see it in his mind. But he didn’t have it. He didn’t have it.

He never wrote that letter, but on a trip north he took the subway out to the old high-rise and knocked on the door of her apartment. When she opened the door he barged in and condemned her. She stepped back, holding onto a chair for support. She lived alone. She was frail. Her once golden hair was already turning gray.

He gave her a sob story about how one day he would have made his own albums with those photos, and he would have had them when he was old and alone inside a small house, listening to the rain on the roof, turning the pages, studying the photographs as though each was an important piece of history.

His ex-wife turned toward a picture of Christ on the wall. From behind it she removed a small photograph and handed it to him. It was the picture of his son and himself, the one snapped in a photo booth.

“I was keeping this blessed,” she said. “But you take it. There’s only this one I’m afraid.”

SOLITARY SOUVENIR

She stood there in that same apartment with the same furniture they had picked out together, now draped with covers to hide the wear and tear of the years and he saw her pain. And he thought he understood her strange act of hiding that one photograph—that solitary souvenir of lost love—in a special place.

The bitterness left him. Tentatively, he put his arms around her. He remembered how much they had once meant to each other. Ever so slightly, she put her arms around him. She remembered too, he could feel it. There was a moment in that embrace when he believed they could have started over and the five years of bitterness could have been five minutes. But they broke apart.

He told her to put the photo back, that he would rather have it there than kicking around in his overnight bag, a vagabond like him.

He wasn’t a religious man, but it felt right for that photograph, that lone survivor, to be in that place. That’s what he wanted and that’s what he asked her to do, and, while she re-adjusted the picture of Christ, he slipped out the door.


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Tor Holmström, where are you?

TOR HOLSTRÖM drifted into New Orleans like a tropical breeze, inviting yet elusive. He was a rakish figure, tall and lean, fair hair tousled in the wind. Here was a man who moved lightly through life.

He “lived above the fray,” as he once put it. He was a young itinerant writer with no permanent home. A single man, a restless man, flying back and forth across America like an insomniac pacing his room.

In November of 2004 he touched down in New Orleans. He checked into a hotel in the French Quarter and began partying in that community. At a local nightspot he met a young woman named Sarah. When he introduced himself she already knew his name. She had read his last novel, The Suitcase Man, but found it “superficial” and not in the same league as the one that came before it, Sleep the Small Death.

“Now that was a hell of a book,” she told him.

I’m sure he stared into her dark-brown eyes, scanned her thick, auburn hair, the untamed eyebrows, the generous mouth. Sarah was an earthy, vibrant woman.

Things moved quickly after that.

VAGABOND

On their second date, he told her about his vagabond lifestyle. That’s when he used the phrase “above the fray.” Sarah was a wordsmith, too. She was an editor at the Times-Picayune. “You’re Scandinavian,” she said. “Instead of living above the fray, you should live according to Frey,” she said, spelling the word.

“The Norse god of weather,” he acknowledged.

“Not just weather,” she noted, “ but the god of fertility, crops, peace and prosperity.”

Sarah told me she looked into his eyes at that moment and said to him, “That’s what you—what we should have, Tor, each of those things. We should live in a house, plant crops, be fertile—in the soil and in the body—and live a peaceful and prosperous life.

Sarah told me she then sang a line from an old folk song about a boll weevil who says to the farmer, “You’ve gotta have a home, you’ve gotta have a home.” This is what Sarah sang to Tor in a low, slow voice.

“Listen to the boll weevil,” she urged him.

FINALLY A HOME

And so he did, and they embarked on all the things she had mentioned. They got married, bought a house and lay the groundwork for a fertile, peaceful and prosperous life.

Tor Holmström, the wandering novelist, finally had a home. He told me about a week after they were married that all the aimless flying around in the sky had been worth it, to arrive at that point with his “earthen Sarah,” as he called her.

The earth was good to them. It was the sky that was insane. One of the most powerful hurricanes ever to form in the Atlantic was heading for the Louisiana coast.

On the morning of Sunday, August 28, 2005, the mayor of New Orleans issued an evacuation order. Tens of thousands of residents begin leaving the city. Tor and Sarah held their ground. Early next morning, Katrina hit. Winds of 150 miles an hour pushed the Gulf of Mexico into waves forty feet high. Water surged over the levees and flooded the city. Destruction and chaos were immediate. Evacuees who couldn’t get out of town packed the Superdome.

INTO THE MAELSTROM

Tor and Sarah were caught in the maelstrom. The hurricane demolished their house. They ran hand-in-hand from the ruins. Debris rained down. A flying brick smashed into Sarah’s head. She fell all at once. The hurricane didn’t miss a beat.

Tor cradled her head. She died like that.

Holmström, I believe, would have prayed for his own death. A witness heard him yell at the sky: “Don’t leave me like this, you bastard!” An impious but fervent prayer.

As if to hasten his own death, he lay Sarah to one side and walked into the hurricane. I learned this from a neighbor, a doctor who witnessed the whole tragedy. Walking away like that, not staying with his wife was a selfish act, perhaps, but I understand it. Here was a man who, until he met Sarah, couldn’t make a commitment to anyone or anything. And when he finally did, it was torn from him.

That was the last time Tor Holmström would ever listen to the boll weevil. And that was the last time, as far as I know, anyone ever saw him. Nobody I talked to afterwards knew what happened to him.

More than 1,800 people were killed by the hurricane and hundreds more went missing. Many were never identified. After some time had passed, I figured Holmström was in that number. Even years after Katrina, there were no definite figures on the dead and the missing. The bodies of many unidentified victims were buried in a field on top of the former Charity Hospital Cemetery. Perhaps Tor Holmström was among them.

ADDRESS UNKNOWN

On the chance he didn’t die, I have tried to locate him these past years. I google his name from time to time, in case he’s gone back to writing. I contacted his publisher, only to be told they have no current address for him.

“He still gets royalty checks, doesn’t he?” I asked. “Where do you send them?”

His royalty checks, I was informed, were automatically deposited into a bank account, its name and location private information. Holmström could be getting those checks anywhere in the world.

Then, in December of 2011, a break. An essay on the release of the American version of the Swedish film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, appeared in the features section of The New York Times. The byline on the piece was none other than Tor Holmström. When I saw that name I literally jumped out of my chair.

He was alive! Not only that, but here was an opportunity to contact him, something I have desperately wanted to do, but feared was lost forever.

At the end of the essay, there was this biographical line: Tor Holmström is a writer who gets his mail in Key West, Florida.

I read that line with great excitement.

KEY WEST

I wrote a letter addressed to Holmström with my phone number, mail and e-mail addresses and enclosed it in a larger envelope that I sent to the features editor of the Times, asking that the letter be forwarded. I waited, hoping, actually expecting in view of what I had put in the letter, to hear from him.

Two weeks went by, a month, two months and then another disappointment. My letter came back: Return to sender, addressee has moved, no forwarding address.

There was one last thing I could try. The next morning I set out on the eighteen-hour drive to Key West, stopping only for gas and just once to grab a fitful sleep in my car.

When I arrived in Key West, I checked into a hotel on Duval Street and began hanging out in the bars on and off the strip, talking to bartenders, writers and other people who might know him, or know of him.

People who did know him told me he had left Key West a month earlier, destination unknown. I drove back to New Orleans in great frustration.

I’m anxious to find him. Sarah was my sister. Five minutes after she died the doctor who lived next door performed a postmortem cesarean as she lay amid the destruction. He retrieved a baby. It is alive today. A boy, seven years old last August.


Tor Holmström (Photo from the jacket of his novel ‘Sleep the Small Death,’ courtesy Norlander Publishing Co.)


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