Elegy for Our Home in Detroit







I’m sorry if I seem a little scattered since the invasion of Detroit; I’ve lost a few things, and if you can find them, will you send them my way? Two peach trees, one pear tree, one plum tree, five rose bushes, one fairy door, one swing set, used, one play scape, pirates and adventurers since moved on, one mural, one door frame with ten years of my daughter’s growth marked in pen, and yes, what I really want back are those years. It was all eternity, but now we have been displaced.

In the house that you live in, in the city you declare bankrupt, in the school system you have dismantled, you have stolen our memories.

I miss my home. I grieve the house we lived in when the children were small, the rooms they pulled their stuffed animals through by a long ear or a string, the marks on the door frame to show how they’ve grown, once a year in pen, because we were never going to leave.

Here are the rooms of the nine hundred square feet and the happiest days of my life: hardwood floors, high ceilings with crown moldings in a fleur de lis pattern, stained glass windows and a crystal chandelier. We painted the front room blue, the color Nereida chose. “Blue like my dress, Mami. Azul! Azul, Mami!” She runs up to me on the couch saying her name is Esther, and that she will crown her big sister the queen of all the Cheetahs.

The neighbor girl, Iztlali, painted the dining room a soft green and it resembles a room from a magazine, with the bronze chandelier and the long white curtains, but then I put in the toys, and art supplies and a rug. It becomes a place of ever-changing landscapes, and there Maria and Nereida spend hours; they sing, dress up, marry each other, and their stuffed animals become involved in long fairy stories from bright picture books.

The best days are the days after the trial when Cesar has been released and has already gone away to Honduras. Those moments are the sweetest, when the evening is hushed.

Soon, it will be time to lay Maria and Nereida down in their toddler beds, in the room with the mural that Itzlali painted. Fairy creatures from Mexico come alive at night and bring the girls into a nighttime world populated with one-eyed birds and bright colored flowers the size of their heads. “Mami, sing us another song,” the girls say, and I do, the one about the coyote.

And perhaps snowflakes fall from the sky, and Detroit quiets; my bedroom looks out onto the backyard, where the snow covers the play scape, the fruit trees, the garden fence.

Maybe I hear the back door open and shut, and the family that lives upstairs pop their heads in through the kitchen door; Patrice and her two children, Juan and Salome.

“I’ll get the kids up to bed,” she says. And soon my housemate and friend from the old neighborhood comes down the stairs, and we share coffee, or a drink, and whisper plans for our children, dreams for things we are going to do. She shows me her timeline to quit the Detroit EMS and become a midwife; I promise to look into classes to get my teaching certificate. Maybe we can get the kids into that new art school.

At night the Detroit sky still flames red in brilliant sunsets from the upstairs back porch, and the trees grow peaches and pears and plums in the summer, and the roses the Lithuanian woman planted wind through the fences in a pink, white and red barricade. I pick two-dozen red roses on the last day of school in the Migrant Center where I am the teaching assistant, and give each graduating mother a rose for completing the ESL course. But at the end of the year, we are all laid off and we have to re-interview for our own jobs.

I wear my mother’s clothes to the interview, a long, two-piece sweater dress with low-heeled loafers. I miss her. They still smell like her, lavender and fresh sheets. I resemble a round owl with tortoiseshell glasses, not even curvaceous, just round.

As I walk in I feel a chill invading my body. The principal interviewing me is an iguana, his tongue slips in and out of his moist lips. The union representative at the meeting exchanges a look with the principal, lifts his eyebrows. When I leave, past the large glass windows of the interview room, I can see their heads bent together. The secretary, a woman my age dressed in a tight leather pantsuit and 4-inch heels walks into the room. The men smile at her. She asks a question, or says something, and they laugh. I don’t get the job and everyone in our center is replaced by a Teach for America Volunteer.

I find a job where I fit in. I work at Wendy’s; the smock is blue and white, and it makes me look slimmer. My coworkers don’t look down on me, and because of my freckles, some of them even call me Wendy. I’m one of the fastest cashiers, they say. “That’s pretty good,” I say. There is no history, just me, tying on my blue and white headscarf in the bathroom at Wendy’s hamburgers.

I can make change by counting backwards, so I know if the computer is wrong. I never needed a calculator to do math. I can just open the cash register with a key and count out the change; since I can do math fast in my head it also means I get the best shifts. When the line is nine deep, I like to catch someone’s eyes in the back line, see their hungry look, and watch their surprise when they get all the way up to the front in no time. It also means I get to talk to whole football teams, people who would never talk to me when I was in high school–they are filled with gratitude when they get their orders.

Square beef slabs, pink and plump, stacked on their paper squares line the walk-in shelves until it’s time to carry them over to the grill. I know how to work every station, the register, the grill, the Frosty machine, the fryers, and the cleanup stations– pots and pans, mopping, scrubbing the bricks, vacuuming. Window washing. My apron is caked with grease when I work the grill, and when I close the restaurant I have sweated and cooled down so many times throughout my shift I feel like an athlete, both spent and high on endorphins.

The giant stainless steel lettuce chopper is the only machine that I edge away from. I told my bosses all those shiny little blades were too much for me. I wanted to see what my arm would look like chopped into little squares; I’ve always liked blades. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that out loud. Maybe that’s why I’ve never made Manager, even though I said, “Just kidding!”

How do I lose the house? It happens in stages. Wendy’s doesn’t pay that well, and Cesar is back, and in and out of the house; I can’t get him to move out. Then, one night, Cesar starts a fight in the bar; two guys drag him outside, throw him down on the ground and start kicking him in the head. His cousin stabs one of the guys, and is arraigned with attempted murder. His cousin saved Cesar’s life; I take the money out of the house to pay for the lawyer and his cousin’s freedom. But I am finally able to tell Cesar to go to hell, and he mostly stays away. I think he’s met someone. Zubayda. They move back to Cesar’s family farm in Honduras. That’s what I hear from his cousins.

Then the storm rips half of the roof off, and the house loan pays for the contractor that fixes the roof, but he doesn’t fix it. Kent threatens to kill me when I try to get my money back. Don’t ever use Kent’s roofing in Detroit. Fuck you Kent. Your dad is rolling over in his grave for what you did to his business, you mother fucker.

“Your kids like to play in the backyard, don’t they?” he says. And the next day, the back gate is missing from the yard. And so the house loan pays for a new gate, and bars on the window, and another guy, a neighbor to slap some tar on the roof to hold it together for the winter, and a floor and ceiling for the upstairs kitchen, ruined by the roof that Kent built. It’s like Stephen King started writing nursery stories and implanting them into people’s yards in Detroit, and you can’t return the book back to the library, because the library’s been burnt down.

There’s always a place for money to go, until I start having to buy the food with the credit card again, because one thing about Cesar being in Honduras, is that he’s in Honduras, not here, and the girls need shoes and winter coats.

So we get behind, and then we get behind some more. Patrice, who rents the upstairs rooms, gives birth to Emma, and then Patrice moves out to the east side into her new boyfriend’s place. Things just fall apart little by little. My house goes to someone with 17,000 to spare. I’m not allowed to buy my house for 17,000, but someone can. The couple is bright eyed with glee. The woman laughs and takes a picture of the sales price. “You have to post that, they won’t believe what a steal they can get here,” he says. He didn’t pronounce the ‘r’; they’re not from around here. They barely glance at me.

I start selling the furniture little by little. The one-bedroom apartment we can rent in the town just north of Detroit doesn’t have room for all of the bookshelves and dressers. I keep the table from the house I grew up in, the one we made with dad, and the girl’s bunk beds. I keep mom’s blue mixing bowl, and the girls’ art supplies and dress up clothes. As I pack the last box in the truck, I sniff new adventure too.

The girls are bewildered by the silence in the suburbs. They learn how to cross the street. They learn how to ride their bikes. They are ten and twelve when we move out of Detroit, and their babyhood is gone, forever in the house on Larkins Street, on the dead-end block where we climbed down onto the freeway with jugs of water for the truckers the day the traffic stopped and the power grid went out on the entire Eastern Seaboard.

I want to write a new history for myself. I do not know the name of my great-grandmother. It is as if a giant hand deposited us here, lifted from the nothing, a myth of a place over the ocean; always within a few miles of the narrow place in the river called Detroit.

Michigan, from space, is in the shape of a mitten; it is a left hand. Left handed like me, and the narrow strait of Detroit curves around what would be the thumb joint, the rest of the state is filled with trees and people who are sure that Jesus is white and wants us to bomb the infidels. The talking heads on the TV say that what happens now is what matters, and what came before is nobody’s fault who is alive today, and we should forget it.

I look in the mirror to see if there are answers to the history written there, but I see nothing. If I stare at myself long enough my eyes will start to scare me. I believe there is something you can see in eyes, and that is what we see into other people, but myself? I keep seeing an attic room behind me filled with trunks and boxes, things of value peeping out: velvet, wooden, and silver, entire rooms, lifetimes of treasures, carried over from other places and other times, carried in the hold of ships, treasures stolen from the manor houses, traded in exchange for safe passage to another place. This room is full of stolen pickings.

I would have lost the house anyway; I am glad that the one peach tree still bears fruit. The new couple that lives there tore down the playhouse and built a fire pit. I drove through the alley just to see; it was dusk. They took the pear tree out too, and laid cement down. I stepped out of my car and I could hear laughing. I peered around the garage and the new bike shed. I smelled a strong odor of weed. They have painted over the graffiti on the garage, and the tall grass and the grape vines are gone. I wonder what would happen if I introduced myself to them. If I told them that they are standing on hallowed ground; it used to belong to us, and we to it. I know that this story has happened to people over and over again in history, that the owners will never see who I really am, through the smoke of their campfire. But there is a bigger universe than I can see, and what happens down here doesn’t alter that. The change has already happened, and there is enough to remind me of this under the moon, and in the morning below the day blind stars. But, I miss my home. I miss the baskets of peaches in the summer, and the long days on the back porch, when my children were small.

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