Long Red Fingernails

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.

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.

WINDSOR ONTARIO

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.


 

Sunflowers for Susan

“Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”

The pain in my gut has gone for now, probably because I ate and drank as little as possible today — well, I still had a goodly pint.
Tomorrow, instead of hanging myself from a sturdy hook at the top of the door frame

I will go to the plant shop and buy sunflower seeds and grow sunflowers for Susan.
They will grow tall and beautiful.
The ground may still be too hard.
I will see.
But I will buy the seeds
and wait…

Spring begins in my neck of the woods at 5:58 pm on Wednesday and on that occasion, instead of continuing to drown in a sorrow of tears, I will go to the garden shop and buy sunflower seeds which I will plant as a memorial to Susan, who loved sunflowers (who doesn’t?)

I think the ground will be thawed enough to plant the seeds, but if not quite yet, I will wait…

This wonderful idea came to me in a dream last night — maybe Susan put it there. As Euripides wrote 25 centuries ago: “Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”


The Next in Paradise

The road I take / to paradise is bright / with flowers. — Japanese death poem by Sokin


FROM THE ARCHIVES

My journeys across the Pacific are becoming more frequent. For years I have been going to Australia to visit my mother. When she was in her sixties, still relatively youthful and fit for long-distance travel, we used to alternate trips each year, which meant that I went down there every two years. When she got into her seventies and wasn’t up for the long flight, I went down there every year. When she turned eighty it was a different story and I started going down there twice a year.

The flight from New York is a twenty-hour mind trip through six time zones. The Qantas 747 leaves Kennedy Airport at night, stops for more passengers at LAX, and takes off again, flying into darkness all the way. We don’t see the dawn again until the descent into Sydney, fourteen hours later and the sun is coming up over the Sydney Harbor Bridge and reflecting off the shell-shaped roofs of the Opera House. A beautiful sight.

When I was younger and figured I had most of my life ahead of me I would tense up during anxious moments, like when the cabin lights flicker on and off and the captain’s voice comes on the intercom: “We seem to be having a bit of an electrical problem…”; or if the engines begin making strange noises; or if God suddenly reaches out and, for no apparent reason, gives the plane a darn good shake.

As I get older and more resigned to my fate, I sit back and take it easy, in an aisle seat in the center row if possible, where, if I get lucky, I might have three or four seats to myself and can stretch out under a Qantas blanket; or get luckier still and sit next to a pretty woman traveling alone, which has happened more than once. Sweet friendships can be forged at that height and at that speed, especially if God is shaking the plane.

A young dark-haired woman, during extreme turbulence, once gave him a look that said, You can climb under this blanket with me if you like because 40,000 feet of black death terrifies me.

A man answers a cry like that.

My mother believes in heaven; she believes she will be reunited with her husband, who died at fifty, and her first-born son, who died at twenty-four just six months later.

My brother died on the side of the road, the scent of eucalyptus in the air. He was in the passenger seat of a sports car that overturned at high speed on a country road. His best friend was driving. He survived.

“They took the curve too fast,” the bearer of the news told my mother and me at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. I was eleven. “We don’t think there was any pain.” The death of my first-born is infinite pain, my mother’s eyes said.

The accident was reported next morning on the front page of the newspaper:

FOOTBALLER DIES IN CAR CRASH

The club photo they used was particularly soulful, his eyes staring sadly at eternity.

Barrie

My uncomplicated mother, with her childlike view of life and death, expressed it poignantly in a letter to me some years later: One minute he was here, and the next in Paradise.

After the accident, the best friend who was driving, a fellow footballer, wrote a painful letter to my mother, asking her forgiveness. He sent her a delicate porcelain figurine—a ballerina—an unusual gift from a football player. She put it on the mantel in her living room.

“He didn’t know what to do with his grief,” she says over the years, as she carefully dusts the ornament.

I remember  going to my brother’s football games, and afterwards, in the locker room, the smell of sweat was the smell of a hero. All those years without him. I miss him more with each year, and never more than flying across that sea of darkness.

I would give anything to be met at the airport by my brother. I would get off the plane looking for a tall figure waiting at the gate, a man in his fifties now.

“Good flight?” he would ask.

“It was okay.”

My brother would take one of my suitcases, not an ounce of fat on him, still lean and strong. “You’re looking well,” he’d say.

“You look great,” I’d say, and we’d walk out to the parking lot, the scent of eucalyptus in the air.