Joyland

The Midwest |

Detroit Edison

by Joseph Horton

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

Editor's Note: This story is part of Joyland's Michigan stories series.

*

John R. Allen

509 N. Ulston Street, #2
Detroit, Michigan 48201

Mr. Allen,

This is the final notice regarding the outstanding balance of your DEE gas and electric account. If you do not pay the below sum within two (2) business days, you will be returned to the dark and cold forever. 

Cordially,

Detroit Edison Energy
1 Power Drive
Detroit, Michigan 48226

——————————————————————————————————————

I make lists. I say list it to solve it. 
I will clean myself up Clean up vomit.
Get up. 
Shower.
Get dressed. Find shoes. Shoe. Right shoe.
Take out trash. All of it.
bottles
cigarettes
bottles (in bedroom)
spoons, ties, etc
Eat something (DO NOT FORCE).
Drink something (HEALTHY).
Find car.
Settle debts. 
Tria.

It is a difficult list but not an impossible list. What do we say, class? That’s right. Nothing is impossible. Challenges are very important to our growth as students and as friends and as people. You are fourth-graders now but next year you will be fifth-graders and in no time at all you will be adults. Think of what would happen if no one challenged himself or herself to be better. Nothing would happen. What if we did not reach for the stars? Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. You can write that all down if you want. It’s also on the poster at the back of the room. Remember to put your name and date at the top. Who has paper? Nobody? That’s right. Nobody has paper and nobody has pens and nobody has pencils and everybody has erasers for mistakes they can’t make. That’s right. We erase the nothing. 

Back to the list. This morning’s lesson. We have lost a shoe. Which one? Right shoe. Are you right-handed or left-handed? Which hand do you write with? Right. Right. Correct. If you were to snowboard—sorry—has anyone here snowboarded? No. If you were to…skateboard, if you were going down the hill after lunch, during recess, sliding on your shoes, imagining you were a surfer…that’s right, Keiara, nuh-na-nah-na-na-na-na-nana-nah-nah-na-na-na-nah-nana, if you were surfing on the snow on your shoes, which foot would be in front? Left? Then you’re right-handed; that’s the stance of right-hand dominance. Have you ever considered how you are dominant? D-O-M-I-N-A-N-T. Powerful. Self-motivated. Let’s write some of these vocabulary words down.

Has anybody seen the chalk? 

What’s that, Keiara? No. We will not be taking a field trip to snowboard. I wish. I used to. Snowboard. All the time. Back when? You don’t believe me? You know, there was a time when I was actually cool. I was young once, before I had all of you to tell me, no, no, Mr. Allen, you’re not cool, teachers can’t be cool! There was a time, you know. 

There was! 

You’ll just have to believe me then. 

Nice try, Keiara. Good sidetrack. But we’re still looking for our shoe. Back to our lesson. 

Let’s brainstorm. We woke up this morning on the floor of our apartment and we only had one shoe on. Where did we see the other shoe last? Think back through the day. Or the night, rather. Was there any place we remember having it? At home, sifting through the bills, or at the bar—no, not Jefferson’s, the other one, the 8-Ball, yes—and in the alley outside, the one where we met up with Jimmy’s guy whose stuff is expensive but worth it. Back home, maybe? Did we still have it then? Show of hands. How many of us think we had our shoe when we went back home? James, you don’t need your mouth to be moving to raise your hand. Thank you. And thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. And how many think we lost it before we got home? Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. Thirteen. Is that everyone? How many people are we missing today? I have stopped counting the absences. 

All right. How about we break into our Explorer Teams and brainstorm possible places, both in the apartment and outside the apartment, where the shoe could be? Let me grab some butcher paper for us to draw out all of our ideas. Let’s make two big lists of everything that might be possible. 

Ah. 

You’re right, Deanne. We can’t, can we?     

I have been told, class, that the paper is coming. Soon, they say, we will have paper. But today I’m afraid that lesson is going to have to wait. We’ll just have to use our minds, the power of our minds. A real brainstorm. That’s a good exercise too, isn’t it? Making lists with our minds? 

That’s right, Deanne. List it to solve it. That’s what we say. 

Come up with a list in your mind, “possible locations of the lost shoe,” and I’ll write on the board with…with our last remaining piece of chalk! Good, Andre, good, thank you for finding this. Now you are Finder-in-Chief. Can we all thank Andre, class, and salute our last, brave piece of chalk? Mr. Chalk, we salute you for your bravery. You, and you alone, let us learn. If you could only clone yourself in vast numbers and populate all of our classrooms…yes, clone, like Star Wars. You’ve got it. 

Tria, please, eyes up front. Eyes up front, Tria. Is that a conversation you want to share with the whole class? Then eyes up front, Tria.     

Actually, if we’re going to use the rest of Mr. Chalk’s precious life today, we’d better skip down our list. We want to have time for lunch, don’t we? Of course. At least we still have that. Forget the shoe. Let’s go for the big question: Where is our car? 

One at a time! One at a time! My, my, you all are chatty today. 

One at a time. Raise your hands. I’ll call on the quietest person. Who can be the quietest? 

Yes, Tria, you are the quietest. Like a ghost. Like our ghosts. What do you think? 

That is a good idea, but I can’t ask my neighbor because she never leaves her apartment and she watches television all day, from morning to night. Have you ever seen those Feed the Children ads? She watches them all the time. The walls of my apartment are so thin I can hear Pastor Jim begging and begging all night. And no, I am sure she did not see anything that would help us. She is a good person. She would not….

My other neighbors? No. They…sometimes they have issues that they need to work out, and it gets very loud and….

Why yes, James, that is a euphemism. Very good! How smart you all are. 

Anyway, I wouldn’t ask them. It wouldn’t do for me to get involved. Unlike you, class, adults don’t learn from their mistakes. 

Come on now. Does anybody remember when we saw it last? The car, now, not the shoe. We were driving when we shouldn’t have, though we told ourselves that we shouldn’t many times, though we always swore the last time would be the last time, but it was cold, and we had lost a shoe, and we had places to be.  

Yes, Demarquis? 

No, it is not at the police impound. 

Well.

It is very unlikely that it is at the police impound. 

Why would the police be involved? You are assuming the worst. Well, you are assuming we have police, and that is optimistic, but why would you think they would come after me when I am an upstanding citizen? I Taught For America! My contribution to this city is immeasurable. That is, it can be measured in the achievements of my students. My wonderful students like you, Demarquis, and you, Jayshawn, who are hungry until lunch. Demarquis and Jayshawn, who are living proof that this city isn’t dead, who are the hope and life and energy hidden under ash and snow. As Principal Mandell tells us, we are the pride of the city, you are the future of a futureless city. I believe it. Do you? Good. 

Tria. Tria! Stop that. Eyes up front. Keep your eyes on the board, please, and not on your neighbors. I don’t want to have to write you up. Mrs. Mandell won’t be happy to see you for the fourth day in a row. My, my, it’s Thursday already? 

Yes, Tria, that was a rhetorical question. You must have a great and very brilliant teacher. But eyes up front! 

Back to our problem. Where have we put our car? We have to take accountability for our actions. We can’t pass them off onto somebody else. I’m being as helpful as I can by allowing all of us to brainstorm. If we had the scholastic aptitude tests coming up, then we’d have to answer on our own, and our answers would determine whether we get toilet paper for next year. Speaking of…

Who brought in today? 

Thank you, Zakiah. 

Can we all thank Zakiah? 

We all appreciate the TP, and we know that nobody gets anywhere in life without teamwork, don’t we, class? Teamwork. Cooperation. Makes it happen. Cooperation. Working together. Team-work. TW for TP. 

Wait. 

The car is parked outside the house on Woodward. I remember. That is not a part of town we normally end up in, certainly, but Jimmy’s stuff was new, and what do we say? It is worth trying new things! We should never be afraid of what’s new. If we were afraid of the new, nothing great would ever happen. 

Do you remember talking about Martin Luther King? I remember. He had a Dream, yes, we saw that, we listened to it, we read it. He was shooting for something new; he was shooting for the moon, knowing that even if he missed he would land among the stars. We all remember that unit? Of course we do. And we remember where we left the car because it was left someplace new. Not new—it was boarded up, collapsed walls, no heat—but new to us. We were trying Jimmy’s newest and shooting up to the moon. 

Tria! Tria! If you don’t show respect to the other members of the classroom, I will write you up. Don’t think I won’t. I won’t have you disrupting this class. You used to be such a wonderful girl. I won’t embarrass you in front of everyone, in front of your peers, in front of your class. I certainly won’t embarrass you by having you clean out your desk on a Thursday afternoon, right before last period. There’s no need to thank me, Tria. I’m just affording you a basic level of human respect.

It is interesting, isn’t it, class, how we form memories? How we remember things? How about this. Let me erase…sorry, Mr. Chalk, we’re erasing all of your hard work at the end of your life, we are erasing all of your sacrifice. 

Now. Let’s make a new list: what are our strongest memories? What memories stay with us? The memory does not have to be personal, too personal, but it can be if you feel like sharing. Yes, Alexandria? Yes, we’ll still have time for lunch. I’ll write all our strong memories up on the board. We’ll make a list. List the problem to solve it. 

Yes, Jayson? 

The memory of your grandmother baking cookies in the kitchen in the winter. Good one. 

A’brevia? 

Seeing Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel? Ok, sure. 

Armond? 

No, no, that works. How long ago? Two years. That must have been one heck of a touchdown. Yeah, I bet. 

Does it have to be a good memory? 

No. No it doesn’t, Tyra. What is it? Do you want to share?

And how did she die?

Of course you miss her. How old were you? 

And your cousin was with her?     

No. I don’t think some things can be explained. 

Not…not everything happens for a reason. 

No. It wouldn’t have mattered if you’d prayed more. 

What? 

If He does have a plan for all of us…He’s not brainstorming. He’s not sharing. 

Thank you for sharing, Tyra. 

Sorry? 

Me? I’ll share, sure.  

The memory of the first class I taught. The memory of the first kid who sent me a letter from college. The memory of the last kid who sent me a letter from college. The memory of every class I’ve taught.

Yes, Lanise? 

Yes, there are bad memories too. When we ran out of paper the first time. Sure. 

Tyler? Yes you, Tyler W. 

When the heat went out for January, yes. We all remember that.  

Me? One of my memories? I gave you some. 

Something more? You want me to consider more thoughtfully? That is quite a statement for a fourth-grader. Well then. 

Well. 

I suppose…I suppose when Demarquis came in with his bloody nose. Once, twice, that whole week. When I said something to his father and he pulled Demarquis out of class and we never saw him again. Yes, I suppose that. Or when we lost Tria. When she died on her birthday. Yes. I suppose that’s when I couldn’t maintain my balance…

Hah! You’re right, Jayshawn, that is a euphemism too. How smart you all are. What I mean to say is when I couldn’t stop. When I had to rely on…when I had to get sick to stay well. I’m not doing any better with this, am I?  But we all remember. When my services were no longer required as a teacher in this school, and my behavior simply had to be noted in my permanent file…yes, we teachers get grades too…and mine was an F. An F that made sure I’d never be considered for another position anywhere in DPS or anywhere else. When I was sent to Mrs. Mandell for the fourth time in the week and she said she didn’t care what I’d seen, how long I’d been here, what I’d done in the past, how you were trying to cope with it all, and instead told me that each year was a new year and a new challenge and all the other teachers could do it and if I couldn’t accept that not everyone would make it from year to year, that there would be losses and there was nothing you could do about it, that it was the way of the world and that we had to grin and bear it, well…When I cleaned out my desk as my class watched and Mrs. Mandell said she didn’t care that was almost last period on Thursday and told me to consider this my first long weekend of many to come. When she said I’d bought myself a nice long time to clean up and think seriously about my actions. 

Yes, class, I suppose that is my strongest memory. Then, and just after. When I made a list. When I made a list of everything I couldn’t solve. Everything I left behind. 

I will clean myself up. 

I will stop.

I must stop.

I will stop, but if I stumble, I will not use it as an excuse to fall. 

When I stumble, I will not use it as an excuse to fall. 

When I fall, I will get up.

If I do not want to get up, I will breathe deeply and reconsider.

If I do not want to get up, if I do not see the point, if I cannot highlight the topic sentence of meaning in the cataclysmic shitstorm that is my eviscerated life in the middle of this goddamn husk of a city, I will not get up.

I will remember to include a note as to who gets my car when it is found.

I will remember to blame no one but myself. 

I will remember to put my name and the date at the top of my paper.

Tria. 

——————————————————————————————————————

Eustace Woodbury
509 N. Ulston Street, #3
Detroit, Michigan 48201

Ms. Woodbury,

This is the final notice regarding the outstanding balance of your DEE gas and electric account. If you do not pay the below sum within two (2) business days, there will be nothing left to save.  

Cordially,

Detroit Edison Energy
1 Warmer Way
Detroit, Michigan 48226

——————————————————————————————————————

There are children who will never feel the embrace of love. Don’t change the channel. 

I take care of my children, you know. I am a mother. 

Brian is getting balanced meals, I am told. After a couple of weeks at the center, his cries have turned into smiles and laughter. He is one of my favorite sons. I have many sons. I provide nutritious food and 24-hours-a-day of caring and medicine. This is what good Christians do. We show our love for God by caring for His children. 

There are children who will never know the warmth of a full meal. There are children who feel like they have no hope. 

Brian is three—he just turned three—but he looks like a one-year-old. In his picture his mouth is open wide and his belly is a big old belly like most of them have. I remember when I first started adopting my boys, I couldn’t imagine how starving little boys looked so fat. Now I look at their pictures and I know. At first I thought Brian was crying in his picture, but I hold him tonight and I know he’s laughing. He’s seen something, or maybe one of my other boys has told him a joke. It would be Charles, I’m sure, Charles is such a joker, you can see it right in his picture, and his file says he loves to play. At the Pastor Jim Center for Orphaned Children there is always time for play. 

But at the Pastor Jim Center for Orphaned Children, there is always hope. 

His first mother—I am Brian’s second mother, that’s what I tell him in my letters, so he understands—did not love him like I love him. That is on account of the AIDS, I think. Pastor Jim says it is our duty to help those who cannot help themselves. She was a prostitute, she got her sickness in how she lived her life, but we are all God’s children. The fact that I can care for Brian in ways that his first mother, God rest her, never could does not make me better than her. I don’t think I’m better than her. If others believe that I am better than her because of how well I care for Brian, how closely I watch him and monitor his report cards, how I never miss a payment, then that is their business and they can think what they want. This is not a time for blame and praise or angels and demons. Just because I am his angel does not mean that she was his demon. 

I’m Pastor Jim, and for the last thirty years I have done the work of the Lord. I’ve helped children like Brian here get the love he so desperately needs. 

When Pastor Jim kneels down next to Brian, when he kneels down and Brian’s name comes up on the screen with the toll-free number to call, this is my favorite part. This is when I called to save him. Maybe other people are trying to save him now, but they can’t because he’s mine. I saved him and nobody needs to be saved twice. Pastor Jim kneels down and puts Brian next to his cousin, Jonah, and Brian looks like a vestigial twin, like someone who grew out of his cousin’s belly and lived off the food that he could siphon through the half-skin. This is a Generation in Jeopardy, you know. Pastor Jim calls AIDS a plague upon the world, and that is saying nothing about tuberculosis, which he will talk about more on next week’s show. There are so many plagues these days. So many share so little hope. It is a bargain, really, to give hope at nine dollars a month. For nine dollars a month I am saving my son Brian from death in Africa. I put him on my credit card, with the others: Abraham and Charles and Daniel and David and Elijah and Isaiah and Jacob and Josiah and Paul and Solomon and Thomas and Timothy. I don’t mind getting my bills, and they do come so often now, because they are lists of my boys. I have not heard from Solomon in a while. I hope he is doing well. 

Don’t change the channel. 

Nine dollars, Pastor Jim says, is less than most people spend on coffee in a week. What is more important, your coffee or your charity? Your good Christian charity? I am a good Christian but I am also a mother. This is what mothers do for their children.

ride the bull with the new twenty-four pack of Red Bull ENERGY DRINK. 

I could use some energy. I am always so cold and tired. What is a Red Bull?

SUNSHINE SPOTLESS CLEANER NOW WITH ODOR-FIGHTING TURBO-BOOST.

I do need a good cleaner. And the smell from next door is getting worse. I wonder if I should buy two and give one to Mr. Allen. I wonder if he is home. 

THIS WEEKEND COME DOWN TO THE COBO CENTER FOR THE HOTTEST CARS OF THE FUTURE!

And here I am worrying about silence. At least Mr. Allen is quiet now. No more shouting. No more talking to himself. On and on he went, and now? Such a good neighbor. Not like Ellen and that awful man she keeps bringing around. Fight, fight, fight. 

CALL NOW TO MAKE YOUR RESERVATIONS. 

Margaret Woodbury, call your mother. Your mother is waiting for you to call her. My number is not toll-free like Pastor Jim’s, but you can spare some change, less than a cup of coffee, to call your mother. You do not need reservations to come visit your mother.

Hi, I’m Pastor Jim. Thanks for joining us again. 

At first I could barely understand what the nurse with Pastor Jim was saying. Now I’ve heard her so many times I know everything. All the babies here need your help, she says. When I help one of God’s children in need, you are his angel. 

There’s no need to thank me, I say to her.  

For less than the cost of a cup of coffee a day, you will receive progress reports and the white-winged FTC angel pins, all finely packaged in the Feed the Children Box Set reserved exclusively for our Gold Level Angels.

I touch my pins. I don’t do it for the pins, I tell her. 

This attractive box holds your precious keepsakes and serves as reminder of the difference you’re making in the lives of these precious children. 

Precious. I nod with her. Precious.

Help us do the good work of the Lord. Help us save children like Brian. 

I had not intended to save Brian. Promise. My daughter told me if I adopted one more they were going to throw me out of my home. Can you imagine? These days my daughter only comes by with bad news. Margaret is not interested in my boys, and she never lets me see her boy. What kind of a mother is she? I would like a picture of Asher. A progress report. If only he was starving in Africa and not playing hockey in Southfield. 

Call this toll-free number on the bottom of your screen to be an angel. 

My daughter thinks I’m foolish. I’m not. I know I have bills to pay. The letters from the heat company arrive in between the progress reports. It is almost toll-free for Margaret to call me but she doesn’t. She does not know what it is like to struggle. I struggled so she didn’t have to. When a mother is called to act, there are no intentions and there are no plans and there are no good times and bad times. 

When we found him, Brian was living with his mother in a tin shack that one could scarcely believe was capable of standing up in a strong rain.

Before me, Brian had nobody. He lived in a tin shack that one could scarcely believe was capable of standing up in a strong rain. In that shack, there was no food and no money and definitely no hope. When Brian slept, flies blacked out his teeth. He watched AIDS stretch the skin on his mother’s face. I watched too—they had her on the show. She looked like a mummy. And I knew this mummy was no mother. 

And when Brian’s mother passed away, he was left alone. Alone, until you came along.

I am not foolish. I know the road ahead will be hard. Brian is still underweight. The bills keep coming. My daughter says I have no more time. Brian needs books and clothes for school. Nothing is promised to him or me or us. But now his life is full of hope. His hope is my hope. 

Help us do the work of the Lord. Act now.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Be an angel.

Be an angel, Pastor Jim says, before walking off, thanking me, in his quiet way, for everything I do. His coat swishes like an angel’s white wings. Like my wings. I pick up Brian’s picture. God bless me for taking care of my children.

Be an angel. 

——————————————————————————————————————

Ellen Chase
509 N. Ulston Street, #4
Detroit, Michigan 48201

Ms. Chase,

This is the final notice regarding the outstanding balance of your DEE gas and electric account. If you do not pay the below sum within two (2) business days, if you do not take immediate action to correct all of your mistakes, you are the fool.

Cordially,

Detroit Edison Energy
12 Tinderbox Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48226

——————————————————————————————————————

I told him I’d paid. 

Now he says, “You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“No, I mean, shit, Ellen, you paid, but you paid the other one. The other final notice.”

“How many final notices do you think there have been?”

“Three?”

“There have been four, Mike. Four. I’m the one keeping up on this, not you.”

“So you say.”    

“You know,” I say, though I shouldn’t, though I know where this ends, “There’s a checklist when you turn in a payment, written right there on the back of the envelope in big letters that are big enough to make you feel like an idiot for getting anything wrong. Says, ‘Did you include your check? Did you remember to sign your check? Did you confirm your account number on the check?’”

“It doesn’t say that.”

“How would you know? How the hell would you know a thing about paying for anything?”

I feel pressure and then the blood on my teeth like runny lipstick. While I wait and keep my eyes closed, while I wait to see how many there will be, I think of the guy who came in to the ER on the night shift a week ago. No teeth. He got stomped on the curb. Some gang thing, his mother said after we lost him. Some gang thing. 

“Don’t speak to me like that,” he says finally. 

“I’m sorry,” I say, not sorry. 

He sighs. “Me too.” Not sorry. 

“We’ll be better, won’t we?”

“Yeah baby, we’ll be better. We’re gonna keep getting better.” 

“Tomorrow,” I say, “I’ll call them. It’s a screw-up on their end. Tomorrow, if it’s not fixed, I’ll go down there and I’ll fix it. Their office is on, what, on Eight Mile?”

“They’ve got a new one. Closest one now is on Weaver. New and fancy. They’re the only ones doing good in the city. How you gonna get to Weaver?”

“I’ll drive.”

“What?”

“What?”

“What’ll you drive?”

“My car. The car.”

“I need it tomorrow. Interview with DPS.”

“Then I’ll take the bus.” I think of the little girl who got knifed a few weeks back on the bus riding home from school. Wrong place at the wrong time. We see plenty of that. Puncture to the upper chest. Massive internal bleeding. What was her name? Tyra? Tria? “I’ll take time off work.”

“You’re gonna take off work to pay a bill that we don’t have money for? Tell me how much sense that makes.”

“We’ve got to pay it. We have to have light, heat.”

“You don’t need light for what we do. We make our own heat, yeah?” 

“Don’t say that.”

“What are they gonna do, turn off our power? That’s illegal, right? You can just have people freeze to death in the winter.” 

“Don’t say that.”

He shrugs. He makes like he’s going to do something more, but he doesn’t. The blood’s running fast, I have to swallow it or spit it out or I’m going to drown. I swallow it and it tastes like iron. Hemoglobin. Blood type O-negative. Universal donor, when I could donate, before Mike. 

“Ok,” I say. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Yeah, you take care of it.” He goes back to the TV, says to the African baby commercial, “And it ain’t like we’re a bunch of poor fuckers. We’re good. We’re just not good at gettin’ around to things. You tell them.”

I go into the bedroom and pick out a few of the twenties he never can find in the pockets of my scrubs. Enough. Enough to keep going.

And I’ll tell them: we’re always getting around to things. We’ll get around to it soon. Everything that is broken we will fix. We’ll get ahead on the payments. Soon Mike’ll get a job. I’ll work days instead of nights. We’ll have less to fight about. Then that old bitch next door will mind her own business and stop banging on the wall and calling Emily on us. Soon we’ll get Emily on our side, get her to check out that stink in the Allen apartment. Soon all of that won’t matter because we’ll get our own place. We’ll have kids. The kids will make us better. We’ll be better. And what we don’t get around to we’ll endure. It is my job to save people and I don’t save everybody but I save enough. Tomorrow, soon enough, the light and the heat.  

I pick out one of the final notices. Checklist on the back. Big letters, big enough. Did you include your check? Did you remember to sign your check? Did you confirm your account number on the check?  Did you think all of this would be enough?

——————————————————————————————————————

To: emily_champine@interguardian.net
From: billing@dee.net
Subject: Notices Sent

Ms. Emily Champine,

Please find attached the final overdue notices for your tenants at 509 N. Ulston Street, numbers two, three and four.  As a reminder, please change the master account of the property to your name. Your father preferred monthly meter readings. Please let us know how you will be carrying on his life and legacy. 

Cordially,

Detroit Edison Energy
1 Heart Center
Detroit, Michigan 48226

——————————————————————————————————————

In the end, my father left his life unfinished. It took that carelessness, that looseness of threads, to show me how sick he was.  Without the weight of ruinous nostalgia, without that twilight circling of the familial wagons, I can say he had always been a man who finished what he started. He never promised what he couldn’t deliver. That’s the assembly line mentality, I think, though he’d give me a good long stare for calling it that. He’d shake his head and tell me he just liked things that worked. His favorite saying, one too easily mimicked and mocked in his later years, What matters in the end is how far you’ve come and how far you still want to go, turned out to be half of a poster which had hung above him at the plant for thirty years. The half he couldn’t see, the portion obscured by the de-greaser that killed him, was the ad for Tru-Track Tires. 

My father’s life—his knowledge, vision, his loves and hates, his nightmares and his dreams, his highest and wildest hopes and his darkest and most terrible fears—was small. Small, I suppose, because he made so little of them. The sniffling inhale, the cracking of his peach-pit knuckles; it was not hard to imagine his every thought as a trench, a jagged, deep, drowning scar that only he could see at its bottom. He was a man on the line and of the line, and even when he became a manager, even when he entered ownership, he wanted to settle the rest of his life into a line: the line of our houses that grew extra garages and bedrooms, the line of schools that added prep and day school to their titles, the line of men between him and that old spot beneath the Tru-Tracks. He stopped saying “if college” and started talking about “what college” we wanted to try. When he retired and bought his apartment buildings, making the old brick shells somehow elegant, functionally beautiful, he drew the For Rent signs by hand. Family Apartment Homes In The Heart Of The City. He believed the city had a heart and that he’d found it, that the heart could be found by tracing the blood and heat back to its source. He used the word family the way he’d practiced it with us—we were a collection of parts all essential in motion. We did not have to like or love to work. 

In the beginning, he interviewed all the renters. A teacher for the Ulston place, a public school teacher, single, educated, lonely, fitted next to an old woman, widowed, religious, lonely. Add a nurse to look after them, to be looked after herself if that boyfriend overstayed his welcome. A plan. A system. A line. 

My father died of cancer. He was killed by the trichloroethylene and trichloroethane the de-greaser used to strip fluid and oil from machinery. His life ended because parts stopped working together. My brother says this is ironic, but he is an asshole and should not be allowed to operate heavy words. What I do know is this: my father retired from the plant before the layoffs started, he bought his buildings in Detroit when people were still buying buildings in Detroit. He lived a life that worked. He never saw the breakdown. 

I am left to manage the remains.  

I pull into the parking lot of the Ulston building. I can still see the police tape sticking out of the dumpster. My father, I think, liked Mr. Allen best. With him gone, the rest will struggle. I hold the notices. I do not know whether my father would evict the others. Maybe he would want them to stay. Or maybe he would start over. He was a man of the line. Emily, he says it now only to me, what matters in the end is how far you’ve come and how far you still want to go. 

It’s snowing harder here, of course, always harder in the city. Enough to disappear my tracks back into the earth as I walk from the car. In an hour my visit will be erased. When I go into the city now, I don’t know what is empty and what has been left empty. There is a difference. You can be lonely without being abandoned, but if you are abandoned, you are more than alone. 

The building slouches in the cold. The roof and walls creak in the wind. I pass Allen’s door and can smell the cleaners they used. I look down at my list. 

Smell out of #2?

Give #3 eviction notice. 

Give #4 eviction notice.  

Find For Sale sign (storage?)

It’s a life I never wanted. It’s a job I inherited from a man I convinced myself I knew. I’m not here to save anyone or solve anything. Eventually I will think of someone else to blame. 

I knock on the door.