In honor of its 10th anniversary, here is Chapter 1 of Say Nice Things About Detroit, republished with permission from the author.
They fled. Tom Phillips to Orlando, Brady Johnson to Dallas, Jeff Lombardo to Chicago, Tim Forrester to L.A. David couldn’t think of a single friend from high school who still lived in Detroit, or anywhere near it. David himself had moved to Denver, but now he was back.
It was the very first morning of his return that he noticed the photos, a light-skinned black man and a blond woman, side-by-side in the Free Press, front page and above the fold. Recognition came slowly, then suddenly. He took the paper and sat down to study it. Three nights ago these two had been gunned down in an E-Class Mercedes just north of Greektown, a dozen shots fired at close range. The paper identified the male victim, Dirk Burton, as a retired FBI agent. The woman was Natalie Brooks. The paper speculated on what they were doing in a place and car like that, on whether the killing was racial, which was doubted by a police source, who said violence against interracial couples tended not to happen in black neighborhoods. Perhaps the cops didn’t yet know they were brother and sister.
David dated Natalie in high school, a two-year affair that fell apart when they went to different colleges. Natalie was the serious love of his youth, maybe his life, unfor- gettable still. Evans was the family name. David recalled when as a teenager he pulled his Chevy into the Evanses’ driveway and parked behind a large black Mercedes with fat wheels and tinted windows. Natalie walked out of the house with a black man, tall and broad-shouldered. He moved with an athlete’s swagger. “This is my brother, Dirk,” Natalie said.
David had known Natalie since she was fourteen, and there had never been mention of a brother, black or otherwise. The Evans sisters were blond; they would have been considered fair in Sweden. In the milky summer light, on the edge of adulthood, David sensed that there was an awful lot going on in the world he had no idea about. He learned that Natalie, her sister, Carolyn, and Dirk shared the same mother, Tina, a German immigrant who’d made her way to Detroit in the fifties. Later, Natalie related the story of Dirk’s birth: rushed to the hospital when her water broke, Tina was wheeled from the white ward to the black when the father showed up. Then, as now, half white was black.
It was the one time David met Dirk. He showed David the Mercedes; they leaned into the car through opposite doors, their heads together in front of the German sound system. The vehicle, seized from a drug dealer and pushed into service for Dirk’s undercover work, was more expensive portable stereo system than automobile. “You can’t believe the shit these dopers spend money on,” Dirk said. Then he turned up the bass till the vibrations made David’s sternum hum.
Dirk looked a little older in the newspaper photo (it had been twenty-five years), his hair now shaved down to stubble. Natalie was still beautiful, blond and angular. It was hard to think of them as dead. Natalie especially. It was as if his youth had died with her.
Six weeks had passed since his father called. "It's your mother," the old man said. She was forgetting things; often she became disoriented, so much so that he could no longer let her drive. She was belligerent. She swore often.
“Mom?” David asked.
“A blue streak. You can't believe the things that come out of her mouth.”
David asked what the doctors thought.
"Dementia. Wonderful, huh? Like I can't tell that myself. These doctors are no help. There's no cure, just some precautionary things you can do.”
“Lock her in the house, so she doesn't wander outside in her housecoat. Still, she can get out. I'm always on guard."
“Jesus, hey-ZEUS, Yahveh, Allah. Pick any damn god you want. It won't help.”
“I need you to come home," his father said.
“Yes, of course.”
“Okay. I'll visit.”
“Not just for a visit. I need you to come and stay.”
“Stay?" David asked. Only the demented moved to Detroit; his father had to know this. “Why?”
“Because I don't know what to do.”
At first David resisted the idea. He was sitting in his office, looking out through the haze to the tawny foothills of the Rocky Mountains, when he decided there was nothing important holding him to Denver, or anywhere. He was three years a partner at Cornish and Kohl, a position not nearly as lucrative as he had hoped. He specialized in estate planning and asset protection. “Well,” his father said, “people are always dying, and the asset-protection side of things must mean you're protecting people from other lawyers.” Solomon Halpert had worked his entire life in manufacturing for him the only worthy profession, other than perhaps medicine and this was as close to an endorsement as David was going to get. Despite the subject of David's work, it never seemed life-or-death; he didn't see how three months off would leave anyone in the lurch.
He rented an apartment in the suburb of Birmingham, not far from his parents' house. His father had been slow to give up on the city proper, even after '67, but move he did, first to Oak Park (three miles north of 8 Mile Road, the green line with the city proper) and then out to Maple (15 Mile) before David reached high school. David's room was still intact in that house. His mother had taken down the Led Zeppelin poster, and the one of the Lange Girl (“Soft. Inside”), but it was otherwise the same, twin bed and bookshelves with paperback copies of The Hobbit, Paper Lion, and other books of his youth. It was a museum, that room; he couldn't stay there. Duty was one thing, but he could only go so far. Besides, he suspected his father wanted him close, but not that close.
“Your father thinks I've lost my mind,” his mother told him when he walked in the door. No hello, even. She hugged him, pronounced him too thin, and told him she'd fix him a drink. She was still a trim woman, small, her hair cut short and dyed shoe-polish black.
“Are you?” he asked.
“Am I what?” she said.
“Losing your mind.”
“Not yet.” She looked back at his father. “But he's pushing me.” David stuck his hand out, but his father bypassed it and hugged him. The man was a former marine, and not a bugger. “Thank you,” he whispered in David's ear. His mother, meanwhile, was making drinks at the bar. “She insisted on cooking,” his father whispered.
The house had the same framed prints from the Galerie Maeght, the same black upright Steinway, unmoved for three decades. His parents didn't play but had bought the piano for David, then forced him to take lessons because his mother had read that studying music was good for a student's math scores. She probably figured that if she didn't get a scientist she'd get a concert pianist, ta rather than neither. She handed him a scotch. As a kid he couldn't stand the smell; now he drank it only at home, for medicinal purposes.
“So tell me,” she said, “how's Julie?”
The ex-wife, back in Boston now. He hadn't talked to her in two and a half years. He was glad to be free of her, and yet it still hurt like hell. “Good,” he said.
“Tell her I said hello. You should marry that girl, you know.”
He looked at his father, who stared back, then nodded just slightly.
“Mom, I did marry her.” She studied him. “Oh,” she said at last. She looked away, perhaps remembering, perhaps not, and then retreated to the kitchen.
Later, his brother went up to get ready for bed. Dinner had been excruciating. She'd made pasta but drained it too soon, so that each bite was a deafening crunch. She hadn't washed the lettuce; on his first and only bite of salad het found himself chewing dirt. Again, it was terribly loud. His mother asked him ludicrous questions “How are your grades?” and, worst of all, she wanted to know about Cory, her one grandson, dead now more than four years.
He was a man divided against himself, burning with undying love for his dead child and at the same time wanting to forget, to put the whole thing out of his mind, to be nothing more than a new person, a man without a past. Tough in your parents' house.
Cory would have been sixteen this year, but four years ago he'd gone skiing with his friend Jess Barker and Jess's brother and mother and father. Coming out of the mountains on a snowy night, Jess's father called from I-70 to say they were in Georgetown, moving now; they'd be there in maybe an hour. But then the traffic stopped and a semi ran into them, killing the Barker family whole and destroying the Halperts just the same.
David calculated that the accident happened maybe twenty minutes after he'd talked to Lance Barker; for almost two hours he was oblivious of the disaster. Then he called and got voicemail. Forty minutes later he saw the accident report on Channel 9. Still, he didn't make the connection. That came later, when he called the state police, who took his name and number and then sent a trooper to his door. Snow collected on the plastic that covered the trooper's flat-brimmed hat. The man wore a look so grim that David understood immediately, looking at this stranger, a picture of bad news.
“You see what I'm talking about?” His father handed David another Johnnie Walker Black, the smell of home.
“Sometimes I find her sitting on the bed, crying. When I ask what's wrong. she says she doesn't know what she's doing.”
David studied his father, who had fought in Korea, then spent three years in Japan before returning to work for Bethlehem Steel. Deep vertical lines divided his cheeks. His eyebrows had grown bushy. Unlike David, he had all of his hair, a lot of it dark for a man of seventy-four.
“I've talked to her about it,” he said.
“About the forgetting?” David asked.
“About the home.” His father had put her on the waiting list for a place in Orchard Lake, a fine institution, he said, with locked, coded doors, so she couldn't wander away.
“Are you sure?” David asked.
“Unless you think you can look after her. And believe me, you have no idea what that entails. Sometimes" His father stopped talking. He waved his hand, as if to say, Never mind.
He shook his head, but spoke anyway.
“Sometimes she wets the bed. Or she forgets to get up and go to the bathroom. I have her in diapers now. Your mother. She was something once.”
It felt good to be out of Denver. In coming back to Detroit, it was as if he were skirting his bad times, going back before they happened. David's apartment sat walking distance from Birmingham's commercial core; it was a clean, furnished ground-floor one-bedroom rented easily for three months, so happy was the landlord to fill a vacancy. David liked the idea of walking, of not having to get in a car (very un-Detroit) to buy a sandwich. His folks' house was a mile away, close enough to walk if he wanted.
A few evenings into his return the newspaper with Dirk's and Natalie's picture still lay on the kitchen counter. He found an old phone book and located the Evanses' number. It was too late to call, so he wrote the number out and left it on the Formica countertop.
He wondered what his father would do when his mother went into the home. David resolved to take him on excursions. They could revisit all the old sites, the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Greektown, the DIA, the Ren Cen, Belle Isle just as they'd done when David was a boy. He thought of these places, embedded in his memory, and felt he was considering ruins. But no, they had to be there still; it hadn't been that long. He vowed to see them all; perhaps bearing witness would preserve them.
He decided to take a walk. It was a warm and humid evening. He strolled down Merrill Street, past the Varsity Shop, the one landmark he remembered. where his father used to buy him cleats, baseball gloves, his first cup. The year his Little League team won the championship the team photo went up on the wall, and it stayed there for a year, till it was taken down to make way for newer champions.
He continued on. The shops were all closed for the night, but Birmingham maintained its sheen of prosperity. He felt possessed with an odd feeling of well-being, walking the streets that he'd known as a teenager. He could hear traffic nearby on Woodward. The air had become damp, portending rain; there was a far-off sound of electrical disturbance, the thunder a low rumble, big guns in the distance. He walked on, confident, as if things here might work out right.
Scott Lasser is the author of the novels Battle Creek, All I Could Get, The Year That Follows and Say Nice Things About Detroit. His non-fiction has appeared in the New Yorker and New York Times; he co-wrote two episodes of HBO's True Detective. A alumnus of Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan, the Wharton School and Lehman Brothers, Scott lives with his family in Aspen, Colorado.
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