As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the ’67 Detroit Race Riots, I thought I would share a short story set in Detroit at that time.
“This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend, the end.”*
I stopped telling the truth to our parish priests in 1967, the year that Detroit lost its way. I also lost my way that summer. Each Saturday, near three o’clock, when I knew that most of the confessors would be gone from the church, I went to St. Mary’s and waited to divulge my sins to either Father Kelly or Monsignor Hickey, whomever was attending. I never entered the holy stall until every other parishioner had left and I felt certain that no one else would arrive. Confessions ended at three. I opened the heavy wooden door of the confessional, knelt on the leather kneeler and whispered to the warm breath on the other side all of the horrible sins I had committed. I had murdered. I had robbed. I had assaulted. I had coveted another woman’s husband. I had cussed. I had lied. I had disobeyed my parents. I confessed my sins in a different order each Saturday because I did not want the hidden clergy to grow bored. I included varying details for the same reason. I made the decisions about which order to recite my fabricated sins, and which details to offer, as I went along. Sometimes I got carried away and the priests, familiar with my tales, might even have anticipated my arrival. They most certainly giggled behind their latticed wooden separator, or maybe saved it until later, back in the rectory where they had a good laugh with a friend and a beer, but nevertheless, either priest would give me my absolution. “Say three ‘Hail Mary’s, child, say three ‘Our Fathers,’ and perform three good deeds.” He would bless me and shut the partition between which we could barely smell each other’s lunch, and I would exit. I went to a pew and knelt, ignoring his directives about reciting prayers, and glanced around to discover if, indeed, all of the confessors were gone. I waited also for the priest to leave with his head bowed in secrecy, as if I didn’t know who he was.
I went to the cold marbled alter. I blew out every single white votive candle from the three hundred there, and if feeling particularly courageous, I blew out the large candles behind the altar. Then, with my own matches, I lit one votive, right in the center of all the rest, and I knelt before it, and told my true confessions as I tried desperately to discover and touch the lost half of my soul.
Vickie, my twin sister, and I weathered the sixties quite well considering what was going on. We remained safely distant from the political and social movements and issues of the era, the assassinations, the protests, the guerrillas, jungles, body counts. All that world outside our own meant nothing to us. We remained, for a time, happily cloaked in the veil of naiveté and adolescence, and each evening waited anxiously for the end of the six o’clock news, with its blasts about hysteria and chaos, so that we could move on to the simplest moments of our own childhood and watch Leave It To Beaver reruns while our mother made us dinner. The excitement of the era even took a local turn in the spring of ’67 when the kids from our parish high school held a walk out. We sixth graders lingered at the window watching mobs of students march down St. Mary’s Street, and the gossip, quick and slippery, oozed between us. I, nevertheless, remained unmoved until the rumors whispered that the female students planned to burn their bras. It titillated (and shamed) me to think of numerous bare-chested young women, and I wondered whether they would actually bare their breasts, and I wondered who would see, and I wished I could. But the symbolic meaning of such an episode flew over my head as daintily and unnoticed as an ash.
My faith, as rigid and sure as the Catholic church insisted, provided a perfect sanctuary; no matter how credulous I grew, it protected me. I believed in the God, his Trinity, the saints and the Blessed Mother as dutifully as my superiors directed. I saw my family for no more than what it appeared: twelve-year old twin girls, Victoria and Elizabeth, two teen age boys, James, seventeen and Joe, sixteen, our mother and father, the O’Reilleys–an Irish-Catholic family living in a large parish in Detroit. My home consisted of a house, a neighborhood, a church. I knew that Detroit was a large city spreading away from the great river it hugged, I knew that it produced popular dancing music, that it accommodated millions of people, that it housed miles of ghettos, that it exhibited fine art and industrial age history. And it was all of no consequence to me. Until that summer and the race riots of ’67.
The large green army trucks rumbled by, full of straight-backed young male reserve soldiers as serious as the headlines. Black leather straps locked their chins so firmly into their faces we feared they would swallow their teeth. Vickie said they looked patriotic and charming, and she wondered how she could use the event in the imaginary serial romantic episodes she designed for her Barbie and GI Joe dolls.
“You’re too old, now, for those dolls,” our mother had told Vickie. “Put them away and find something else to play with.”
“But you watch soap operas,” Vickie boldly told her. “What’s the difference?”
Our mother never mentioned it again. She and my twin sister shared an admirable yet irritating belief that life’s little complications were easily remedied by changing the subject, or ignoring it entirely. It kept their lives simpler than even mine, and until that summer, kept their heartaches to a minimum.
Watching the troops, I suggested we try to make the men smile as they passed. I wanted to challenge their rigidity. Vickie wanted to cheer them up. She joined me and we ran beside a truck, waving, shouting, flirting and begging them to notice us, tell us their names, tell us if they were afraid. But they would not budge. The truck came to a stop light allowing us just enough time to reach it and catch our breath. I dared us to raise our shirts and expose what we hesitantly called breasts (our training bras were still loose, after all). Vickie impetuously raised her red poorboy over her head and spun and jumped on the concrete shouting “Give me your address, I’ll send you cookies.” Her thin white Maidenform slid to and fro like a hula skirt around her delicate rib cage. I raised my shirt only to my neck, embarrassed, although I explained that I wanted to better watch the soldiers’ responses. I really wanted to keep my bra from fluttering quite as freely as Vickie’s did. The soldiers remained as wooden as their obligations demanded. But I swore to Vickie that the driver had to work very hard not to smile at me; she said I was lying. She said that I was trying to one-up her again.
In between being best friends, or maybe as a part of it, we continually competed to be the first or the most or the best at whatever we did. Even with the pursuits that we did not share. Vickie was a dancer, and I had no interest in my feet ever leaving the ground, but she would tell me often how much higher she could jump or how much faster she could spin. I was a bookworm, and Vickie read only the Sunday comics and an occasional homework assignment. She could care less that I completed four Nancy Drews in a week. But our general progression in life inched along, no matter how we tried to alter it, at the same pace as each other and every other twelve-year old we knew. We talked about boys and breasts and booze; we worried about zits and periods and the boys we talked about.
With the riots of ‘67, a city-wide curfew lay its quiet shadow upon us for a few weeks that summer, each evening at seven. It filled Vickie and me with mischief and courage. We dared it, pressing those dreaded final minutes as far back as we could, playing on the porch or in the yard being careful not to stray from our property but resisting going indoors. Our father would finally insist that we go in, telling us while he tended his garden, a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips, that he protected our safety and it was too close to our bedtime to be outdoors.
Our father was an electrician. He could open any electrical appliance and not be surprised by the menagerie of colored wires. He found comfort in re-routing high voltage currents, redirecting power. As he had instructed, Vickie and I would go inside, obediently, but not without complaint and a little begging, more often from Vickie.
“Dad, just five more minutes. Please. Nobody will know,” she told him referring to the police.
“Girls, don’t argue with me.”
“I didn’t say anything,” I said in self defense. “Leave me out of this.”
“Yeah, but you’ll stay outside if he lets us so you are a part of this,” Vickie said.
“That’s not the point,” I told her.
“Oh, Lizzie forget it,” Vickie started but our father cut her off.
“Enough, Victoria, this is not my rule, it’s the law.”
“Law-schmaw,” she said folding her arms knowing her obstinacy was punishable. Then softening, she continued. “Okay, then,” she began with a tone of twelve-year-old diplomacy. “Will you make us popcorn when you come in? Please.” She could never leave an argument without winning something, no matter how small. Our father acquiesced. He made the best popcorn, better than a theater’s–kernel free, consistently hot, evenly buttered and salted, and always served with Faygo root beer–and he could not resist the request.
“Alright, you’ll get popcorn,” he said. Vickie’s successful manipulation never left him or our mother without a smile, even if they hid it as they shook their heads in amazement. “Now, just get inside.” And we did.
Our father could not, however, convince our brothers to come in as instructed. As soon as it was dark, they would sneak out the back door, escape over the fence in the back yard and cross our neighbors’ lawns, headed to their friend Ray’s car on the next street, and disappear, and that week they headed to riot sites. Our father watched, standing tall and thin, watering his wilting flowers, not saying a word. Prior to our city being restricted by a curfew, our brothers, of course, did not have to sneak, but their nightly departures met the same parental dissatisfaction.
There had existed a time that our father would attempt to lure our brothers back to the security of the home he so proudly provided. “James, Joe,” he would call to them as they scurried toward the evening’s adventure, a reluctant affection leaning on his voice. “Come back here. Your mother will want to know if she should wait up, she likes to know where you’re going so she doesn’t have to worry. Maybe you could stay in tonight, play a game with Vickie and Lizzie.”
The boys’ refusals wavered when they were younger; sometimes they would return to the house and join us in watching t.v. or playing a game. But finally they ignored our father’s beckoning completely, and he relinquished his efforts.
“They are not good examples for you girls. They’re involved in things, hanging out with people they shouldn’t be.” He attempted to explain the episodes that had erupted over the preceding months, but particularly that summer. Our brothers had both had been caught drinking, and Joe had been caught smoking pot. Our father screamed out suspicions about their using harder drugs and their dealing drugs. Their behavior and his doubts led him to disconnect the phone in the basement, take away our brothers’ car privileges, cut off any allowance. I’m not sure what reaction he expected from us. What he received was silence.
Vickie had found rolling papers in the clothes chute. I wondered if she should give them to our father, but she used them for her Barbies and never said a word. I found two tiny purple dots in a small plastic bag under Joe’ pillow when I changed his sheets. I gave them to him without a word and he put the bag in his wallet and walked away. A need to protect our brothers was innate. But so was the inclination to assist and mind our father. Reticence remained a simple way to not have to choose.
Forced inside by the curfew, we would go to bed early because we knew that from the small round window in our attic bedroom, we could see everything, the garden in the backyard, the fire-filled sky to the east. Summer’s relentless heat had no mercy on our father’s flowers. No matter how much moisture he forced into the dark earth, his marigolds were weary, his snap dragons withered, the small pansies delivered but a weak fragrance. We watched him as he stood watering, pretending not to see the boys disappear into the darkness beyond our backyard.
Dreaming and sighing with envy and pride, we talked about James and Joe. We knew of their escapades; they had snuck down to Twelfth Street, the center of the activity, again. As though they were the official spectators, the neighborhood source, they boasted and exaggerated to us and our friends about what they saw. When the boys recounted, vain and indifferent, the events and spectacles, using words like loot and sniper as calmly as newscasters, we thought of them as heroes. They witnessed women run from burning department stores with arms full of smoking hangered clothes. They assisted two young boys push a Coke machine from Woolworth’s and then joined them in drinking all they wanted. They ate hamburgers by the fistfuls stolen from the burning cart of a street vendor as they viewed fist fights and gun fights and firefighters, the police, the soldiers, the reporters, all tangled up in the streets, between cars, behind windows and underneath ladders. Their young braggart tales were the only connection we had to the horrible reality that heated our city, and we needed that alliance, reckless as it was.
“Why is smoking pot so bad anyway?” Vickie asked her gaze locked toward the distance.
“It’s a drug, stupid,” I told her.
“It’s illegal. Dad doesn’t want the boys doing illegal things.”
“Why doesn’t he do something then? Call the police?”
“You don’t tell on them, why do you want dad to do it? They’re not that bad. Dad’s just dad.”
“Mom doesn’t know, does she?”
“I don’t know.”
“If she did, the house would be cleaner. Can you imagine all the leftovers!”
Our mother cleaned and cooked obsessively whenever family disputes erupted. The house had been clean and meals extravagant for months. She asked our father to let up on the boys, thinking that his demeaning remarks and sarcasm lead them further away from her and from us. She told the boys to “be good.” Because Joe maintained high grades in school, and James kept his part-time job washing dishes at a neighborhood bistro, she couldn’t believe that either of them were half as bad as our father insisted, although she did acknowledge that they treated our father with equal rudeness. The tensions had greater roots, and it was late that summer that Vickie and I came to learn of them.
My father’s birthday arrived while we lived under the cloud of curfew and while the inner city fires competed with late July’s heat. Fans ran incessantly in our home, and the whirring air carried with it the smell of smoke, even though we were miles away. Our mother had a party for our father, a picnic with many friends in the yard. Couples much like them attended–men and women in their mid-thirties, proud in having accomplished the family requirements of the Catholic church. They drank and complained about the riots and other current events with only their helplessness to offer. They were stunned in how quickly and violently the world around them changed, and they felt stalled in their inability to control their teenagers, their long hair and bare feet and ragged jeans. “Kids today.” They drank and laughed too hard and long and uncomfortably at jokes about blacks or hippies or protests.
We children were soothed by the consistency of the adult voices, whatever they might have said, and we were enamored by the perfection of the picnic rituals we performed. We ate hot dogs, potato chips, cookies and drank red Kool-Aid by the quart. We slathered Coppertone onto each others shoulders and backs between dips in the Doughboy pool and admired each other’s sunburns as they developed throughout the afternoon. We had mustard fights, watermelon seed fights, and took turns putting ice cubes down the backs of adults reclining in lawn chairs. As evening approached, the darkening sky provided the mirage of cooling air, and the party grew more subdued with curfew’s demand for silence. But our father, just short of too many beers, livened things up by suggesting that we celebrate his birthday not only with cake and ice cream but with a parade–curfew or no curfew, he had just turned forty, and that was as deserving of a parade as any event he could think of. He sent the children inside to find noisemakers, and he made a trip to the beer store before it closed.
Vickie and I went immediately to the basement equally excited about the parade and to visit our brothers who played pool, waiting for dark when they would begin their rendezvous to see what was still going on down at Twelfth Street. They were with their best friend, Ray, a tall lanky boy with a ruddy complexion, buffed rigorously in fear of even more pimples. He had hung around with our brothers for so long our mother lovingly called him her other son. Our little-girl crushes on him had faded; we were in junior high, after all, and we liked boys our own age. Nevertheless, we experienced adolescent arousal when he teased or tickled us, and it happened more often the older we grew, and it was directed to me. Vickie thought that Ray liked me, and I knew it was with jealousy that she teased me about it.
I told her she was a dreamer, but I could not deny the arousal I experienced at the idea of a seventeen-year-old boy finding me cute. We greeted the boys, and as always, Joe let Vickie take his next shot in the pool game they were playing, James let me take his. The boys saw to it that we played pool as well as they did, wanting someday to enter all of us into the family tournament at the bar they illegally frequented. They were guaranteeing a family victory, they said. The boys had obviously been keeping up with the alcohol consumption of the adults upstairs, and they met Vickie’s double bank shot with exaggerated hoots and cheers; my simple straight-in stirred equal commotion.
We tried to convince the boys to come join the parade and they objected as though we had asked them to help with the dishes.
“Shit, a parade with our old man?” James asked. He shook his long hair out of his face in an act of defiance to our father even though he was not there. The meaning of his attire: the tie-dyed t‑shirt, tamarind seed necklace, and patched jeans did not occur to me at the time, but in his clothing there existed a temerity that we interpreted only as “cool.” He was the older brother, but he did not set the tone for their dress or their behavior.
“Sure,” Joe said. “Happy Birthday!” and he imitated a drum majorette tossing a baton into the air by throwing his empty beer can to the ceiling and catching it behind his back. His cutting words and criticisms about the world, the Church, our father, made up for his style of dress, which was not as bold as James’. He kept his hair short, preferred button down shirts to t-shirts, and instead of wearing his old jeans, he wore new ones and let our mother use his torn and faded Levis for patches or for Vickie’s Barbie Doll clothes. He smelled of Brut, not cigarettes as did James, and for all of this he held place as our mother’s favorite. She denied it, and we let her, kidding her that someday she would see the error of her ways. We had to work to keep him from jumping into the monkey exhibit when we visited the zoo, we had to work to keep him from opening fire hydrants with the hydrant wrench he had stolen from somewhere, we even worked to get him to stop going out on his girlfriend. James looked wilder, but he was actually more calm and assisted in simmering Joe down.
Joe often made fun of our father referring to him as a fairy or mouse, trying to sever his sense of masculinity, or he would call him a johnny or paddy trying to injure his sense of Irish heritage. Anything in retaliation for what he believed unfair treatment by our father.
“Sure, let’s celebrate even though the old man tries to keep us penned up here like little girls.” Our brother’s actions embarrassed me that night and made me feel foolish for my own excitement about the parade. I thought our father’s idea was a good one, but after their response, I, too, wanted to understand it as immature and silly.
Vickie persisted. “C’mon you guys, c’mon Joe, it will be fun. We need your craziness, it’s after curfew. Dad’s drunk and so is Mr. Philips. Let’s go.” They had not yet given us a straight answer, and Vickie didn’t like indefinites or idleness.
Ray told me he’d go only if he could march behind me and pinch my butt. “Like this,” he said softly, and using the tips of his fingers, he tweaked the skin just below my buttocks, dangerously close to my crotch.
“Ouch,” I laughed and grabbed Vickie and pulled her over to our mother’s stored boxes of baby items.
We grabbed rattles and bells for the parade that our mother had saved, having never been satisfied with just four children. She took her role as homemaker seriously, and once we children had attained even the slim independence of toddlerhood, she was ready for another baby. Vickie and I were the grand finale, but she acted as though another one might be in her future. She would mention how much a baby would like those mashed potatoes or a child might enjoy that windy day. And when she talked this way, our father went to her, put his arm around her waist with the ease and tenderness of a young lover, and reassure her, telling her she’d get her baby when a first grandchild arrived, and not to worry. She always wished it could have been sooner and her own.
Vickie and I hurried up the basement stairs, unable to convince the boys to join us. “Wait,” Ray cried, but we kept running.
“No, really,” Joe said. “Vickie, Lizzie, come back.” We stopped halfway up the stairway and turned around. “We’re having a late night party, after the folks go to bed. Don’t be all stupid and go wake them up if you hear anything, it’s just us.” He invited us to the party, I thought, and I felt privileged and mature, even appealing. But I quickly realized differently.
“You girls just stay put in your beds, mom and dad in theirs, and the real celebration will be down here without interruption.”
I became the child again. The battle tired me. The backward movement into childhood wore me down, the forward movement into adolescence raced so fast that I suffered jet lag. No sooner was I frightened by an impulse than I was acting on it anyway, then, too late, I figured out why I had to suffer the inevitable consequences, and as dizzy as I was from the entire experience, something new would come along and I was tempted again.
I hurried to the front porch, genuinely enthusiastic, shaking my noisemakers and calling to our father about getting the parade started soon. The news about the boys’ forbidden party hid behind me, and like a shadow, with the right light, it would materialize again.
“There isn’t a patriotic song worth singing,” our father shouted to Mr. Philips who had attempted to explain that a parade must be patriotic. “`What so proudly we hail as the twilight’s last gleaming?'” our father asked. “`America the beautiful?’ Let’s just sing happy songs!” he stammered and led us through a round of scratchy Christmas carols interspersed with “Happy Birthday,” as we circled our city block. Neighbors peaked out from behind their curtained windows to watch our spectacle, and none were alarmed or concerned because our father and Mr. Philips carried no reputation or scars in the community. Had the boys been there as we requested there would have been sneers from a few. Mr. Harbinger didn’t like the way James cut his lawn without edging it and Mrs. Flynn didn’t like that Joe went out on her daughter. None of them liked that our boys were falling into the rebellious patterns of the time.
It was completely dark by nine-thirty, and we were an half hour beyond curfew, but our father insisted we go around the block one more time. We sang louder feeling naughty for missing the deadline, and we almost didn’t notice when our brothers and Ray drove slowly by. But our father glared at them as they neared, and he hesitated, and the parade slowed down behind him. Ray stopped the car and James stuck his head out the window and told our father, laughing, that he would call the police and report him for disorderly conduct and for forcing minors to break curfew. Our father told them to get home right away. Joe howled from the back seat like a madman and Ray squealed the tires and sped away.
“We’ll bring you home a souvenir!” Joe shouted as they turned the corner. Our father clenched his teeth and I could almost hear the grinding of his jaw. He stared silently, knowing that the playful tone was a facade and that anger prowled their relationship like a starved beast, threatening persistently to make its final pounce.
It was many years before any of this frequent angry exchange between our father and brothers was explained to me, and by then my ears had closed, my heart hardened. The story amazed me little, but I could never accept that I hadn’t bothered to question it at the time.
All we knew we had learned one Sunday morning when we were seven. Vickie and I played as we waited to go to eleven o’clock mass, and from nowhere our father burst into our room and told us to go down the basement. Although we knew him to act with outrage and without explanation, this was exceptional. But we trusted him with what we thought was normalcy and simplicity in our lives, so we never felt fear, possibly anxiety, but we were not frightened. In the basement, our brothers, eleven and twelve at the time, stood side by side facing the empty pool table. Ray stood on the opposite side of the room from us. The boys’ hands were crossed behind their backs, and we could see their faces only in profile; they were grim. We wondered where our mother was. Our father ordered the boys to pull their pants down and lean over the table. I guessed that this was a joke or a game for we were nearing April Fool’s day which tended to be an eventful occasion in our home being that we were all skilled with pranks and jokes. But when our father nervously pulled out his belt, wrapped the buckled end around his fist and then whipped our brothers’ bare asses with the long shiny black tail, it dumbfounded me.
I could not fathom what they could have done to deserve the receipt of the punishment we had only heard of in fallow and unreliable threats, and I could not believe this impossibility had arrived and that Ray and the two of us were forced to witness. We winced with each blow, and Vickie took my sweaty hand in hers and squeezed every time the strip of leather met the soft flawless flesh. It may have lasted seconds, only consisted of a few strikes, but it seemed hours that we watched their faces laying on the felt of the pool table with James’ perspiration and tears rolling onto the green, giving the cloth deep purple spots. Joe would not cry, nor would he allow his face to alter. He merely closed his eyes, and the serene strength that conquered his demeanor granted him kinship to adulthood. Then our father told us to leave and he turned out the light and followed us up the stairs leaving the boys alone in the dark–James with his shame, Joe with tick marks to manhood, and both of them in the presence of their best friend. We feared we were next as we ascended mutely through the house, our father’s presence torturous behind as though he was tethered to our hips. But he disappeared near his room, and we scurried up the stairs to our own, foregoing eleven o’clock mass.
We played Monopoly with the boys later that afternoon, and Vickie asked Joe why it had happened. He quickly lifted his hand to strike her, his face red. “It’s none of your fucking business,” he told her. When tears filled her eyes and her lower lip quivered, he softened, his face paled. He lowered his arm slowly, as if it hurt to do so, he touched her shoulder and apologized. Then he walked away from the game even though he had hotels on both Park Place and Boardwalk. We had never heard the word fuck used in our home before, and our father across the room.
Months later, long after the riots, James told me what had happened, and by then I was numb and oblivious to exploring the reasons for my family’s fall. Ray had made a small hole in the wall that separated the boy’s bedroom closet from our parents’ bedroom closet, and if the closet door was left open they could watch our parents, our mom, sex. The first time that our father heard his laughter and the boys’ snorts, he discovered Ray in the closet, the boys laying on their beds, getting a report. Our dad threatened to beat them as they had never been beaten should it happen again. He puttied the hole. But Ray, unbeknownst to the boys, made the hole again, and one Sunday morning, he watched. Our father found him, blamed the boys, and thus the beating, and the witnesses. Although without having told us girls why he beat them, we never learned any lesson from witnessing the abuse, only that our father had, after all, the potential to hurt us physically as he had only threatened to do prior to that morning. Maybe that was enough.
The incidents that led to this were innocent in nature but irritating to a man like our father who considered himself a good Catholic and a very private man when it came to revealing very personal and intimate feelings, especially regarding sex, protecting his wife. The incidents that preceded this were simple in nature, harmless, only irritating to my father. He found Playboys in our brothers’ closet. He found Joe and James playing doctor with Mrs. Flynn’s daughters. He overheard the boys talking about what they would like to do to their English teacher. Our mother insisted this was typical adolescent behavior, and tried to convince our father to let up on them. He did, but the incidents that followed that Sunday grew more deceptive and crafty. These did not equivocate punishment, only mild reprimands and the usual empty threats because our father obeyed our mother’s wishes, not wanting to upset her gentle nature. Nevertheless, a tension grew between them that even in the heart of a frolic as lively as our father’s birthday party could not be dissolved.
The night of our father’s birthday, long after our parade had ended and all the noisemakers were returned to their boxes, Vickie and I lay in anticipation, unable to sleep. Our brothers never broke promises and we waited for the cars to pull up. We had pushed our bed close to the window to capture the rare breeze that happened by. The city would have seemed on fire even without the riots, and in between slight wafts of smoky air we took turns fanning each other with a black leather cape from Vickie’s Barbie doll. Finally, we heard cars in the driveway.
“They’re here.” Vickie jumped to the window, too excited.
“We can’t go, you know,” I told her.
“So. We can listen. Do you think they’ll wake Mom and Dad?”
“Maybe we could go.” I liked the idea.
“Oh, Lizzie, forget it. Do you think they’ll wake Mom and Dad?”
“Let’s go, Vickie. Really,” I told her. “We’re old enough. Dad won’t wake up because he drank so much. Mom wouldn’t do a thing if she woke up anyway, you know how she is. We’re all perfect, according to her, especially Joe. C’mon.”
“You’re crazy,” she said as she got out of bed anyway and started dressing. “What should I wear?”
“A formal, of course. Stupid. Just put on something warm, it’s always cool in the basement.”
“Don’t act like you hadn’t thought about it yourself.”
We both dressed in jeans and white blouses and flip-flops and tied our equally long brown hair in high ponytails with thin red ribbons and descended our usually creaky attic staircase like cats. We assumed the wood’s cooperation was a good sign. We stopped at our parents’ bedroom door and, as predicted, silence prevailed.
On the first floor we froze. “They won’t let us stay. They’ll make us feel dumb,” I told her. I had lost my nerve when I heard the teenagers in the basement engaging in a typical game. One of them owned a 45 with a recording of a Winston cigarette commercial and played it repeatedly. “Winston tastes good like aCat this point they would all pound twice on any nearby surfaceCcigarette should.”
“So, we’ll feel embarrassed for a while, and then we’ll go back to bed. It might be worth a beer.”
“Oh, the big-beer-drinking Vickie, party down,” I told her sarcastically. The constant race that existed between us as we each tried to grow up faster than the other and tried to slow the other’s rate down, stopped for nothing. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that maturation arrived only in varied and unpredictable increments; their overall effect was independent of when they happened. Neither of us would ever be very far behind the other or very far ahead. Had we known, we may not have competed so guilessly. She had pubic hair before me, but I had raised nipples before her. We started bleeding on the same day. We had a crush on the same boy. None of it mattered.
“Shut up,” she told me. “I’ve drank before, you haven’t.”
“Oh, that’s right. You had a half a beer once. Let’s go.”
When we arrived at the top of the basement stairs we held hands out of a habit that I would miss. There was something comforting about the other’s skin and sweat at moments of drama, but it was a behavior saved for little girls or young lovers. We let go before we hit the bottom. We stood on the third from last stair. No one noticed us.
Ray and five other friends we didn’t know played Mousetrap on the floor in the far corner, but they were calm, quiet, as if playing Stratego or Backgammon or a game that required concentration. They examined the ball as though it was part of a scientific experiment and could perform a miraculous feat. Little did I know how intense a silver marble in motion could be under the influence of certain mind‑expanding drugs. Joe and a girl, not his girlfriend, were making out on the big‑cushioned couch, or we guessed it was he and she. The couch swallowed them into the cracks. We saw only his swivelling Levied hips, both their arms, and her long blonde hair that swam all over the deep red crushed-velvet upholstery. James was not around. Two couples played pool right in front of us, with three bystanders, but like the kids in the corner, they were zealous in refusing to let that cue ball leave their watchful eyes for a moment. There must have been money at stake.
The air was full of smoke, the smell of beer and patchoulli oil and quiet music. The commercial recordings had been replaced by Jim Morrison crooning about love and drugs. “I like this song,” I whispered to Vickie.
“Right, like you really know it.”
I elbowed her in the ribs and she gulped in pain. Still no one noticed us.
“Let’s go,” Vickie whispered.
“Where?” I wasn’t sure if she wanted to return upstairs or go into the party.
She answered by stepping down the last steps and moving toward the corner where they played Mousetrap.
“Hey, it’s Vickie-O, give me five, little sister!” Ray spotted her, and, as always there was a loud response. “Where’s Lizzie-O Baby, your beautiful twin?”
“Hiding on the stairs. Can I have a beer?”
Hiding? The nerve. Embarrassed by her making me look stupid and young, and herself so mature, I almost turned around to head back up the stairs. But Ray stood in front of me before I could, and he grabbed me by the waist, twirled me like a ballerina and shouted, “Let the party begin.”
Vickie stood over the Mousetrap game and guzzled her beer as though she didn’t notice the bitter and warm taste as I did. I sipped my own, standing against the wall near the pool table, having to force the liquid down. I wished the effects could take hold by simply wanting them too. I hated the drink. But soon I felt lighter, relaxed, and nervous with the ease with which everything suddenly existed. I didn’t want to change the feeling and feared it would disappear if I stopped, so I took a deep breath and guzzled my beer, too.
Joe remained entwined in arms and hair and cushions, but Ray went to him and slapped his behind hard. “Bro, we have visitors.” Joe didn’t respond. “Bro, I said there are young females present, chick alert!” he shouted. Joe responded by lifting himself off the girl’s face. His demeanor was an odd juxtaposition of blaring red skin and silken serenity. His eyes sparkled and a slim line of sweat or saliva hooded his upper lip. He looked the way I was beginning to feel.
“Hi, Joe,” I said. “You didn’t invite us, but–“
“–he should have,” Ray chipped in. He put his arm around my waist and bent to kiss me. His open mouth neared mine, and the pull in my groin was like bittersweet chocolate, it startled and delighted me at once. I lifted my chin slightly, hesitating, thinking for a moment that I would let him kiss me. Thinking for a moment that I hoped Vickie saw. Thinking for a moment about the whiteheads Ray had scrubbed off earlier that evening. But a pillow thrown from the couch knocked Ray away from me as it fell onto the floor.
“Leave her alone, Bro, I’m serious.” Joe roared. I would have believed that he had really wanted to protect me until he howled; then the instruction annulled the image of Joe as a savior. His Wolfman Jack imitations were used only for moments of silliness, not moments of crisis or worry. He ardently returned to making out.
Fortunately, Ray found diversion in the pool game, and I hoped to find comfort near Vickie, praying she had not seen the kissless episode. I suddenly felt alone and congested with all of the smoke. The sensation of tranquility I experienced minutes earlier had ripened into nausea.
“This is my second,” she beamed, holding up her can of Black Label.
“Should I be proud?”
I needed her friendship, but she pushed past me and walked towards James’ bedroom. She howled. It sounded so much like a howl of Joe’s that even he stopped his romantic endeavors and looked up. He howled back at her, and James came from his room to see what was going on.
James and some six or seven others came out from his bedroom. They carried with them a cool demeanor. A single motion brought them out to the pool room, a unified smirk toyed with each of their faces. They were one with some state of mind unnamable but certainly detectable. I envied and almost consumed their serenity. James rubbed my forehead. “Sister, good to see you. Where’s Vickie?”
Vickie had started dancing with three of the girls around one of the basement poles as if it were a Maypole. She had undone her long hair as they had and along with them shook and swayed her tresses as they spun around. Two of the teens held cigarettes, one a beer, and Vickie swung and waved the long red ribbon from her hair.
“Cool,” James said. Then he lit a cigarette and leaned back against the wall as if equally exhausted and exhilarated by the performance.
Ray approached me once more, from behind this time, and he began to nuzzle my neck. “Get away from her,” I heard someone say, and I thought it was Joe again, but by then I wasn’t willing to accept his protection even if it was in earnest. Ray stopped immediately and the party grew silent. I looked up just when the lights went out. The dark brought a moment of mystery and suspense; I thought James was playing a trick on us and I liked the jolt of calm. The lights came back on, and our father was standing at the bottom of the stairs. He stood in his bathrobe, his hands in his pockets, his hair combed. “Lizzie, Vickie, come here.” The nausea passed and I was left with one large knot of pain in my gut.
We went to him without having to be told twice. We stood beside him in anticipation, eying the teenagers as they scrutinized him. Jim Morrison sang on.
“You’ll all have to leave,” our father said as composedly as he would in church. “That includes you, James and Joe.”
“What? Old man. You’re kicking out your beloved sons?” Joe asked.
“What’s mom gonna say about this?”
At the mention of our mother, I saw our father’s eyes take light. He thought he was doing this for her, not against her. He knew the risk. “It’s all over, boys. You’re out of here.” His voice was cool blue, as if a tremendous relief accompanied the words when they fell from his lips, not the fear and dismay that I could see the boys were experiencing, although I trusted defiance lurked somewhere behind their grave faces. The rest of the group looked embarrassed. Heads were low. They wanted a way out, soon. Vickie spoke next.
“Dad, c’mon. It’s just a party. Don’t kick them out. Everything will be okay by tomorrow you’ll forget about it.” I realized then that Vickie hadn’t yet taken a leap of maturity that I had. My twirling stomach served as warning enough and obviously her stomach did not do the same. Life didn’t quite work as neatly as it did for her Barbies, but she persisted in believing otherwise.
“Vickie, be quiet now. You girls go upstairs. Boys, break things up and get out of here.”
“No, Dad, you can’t.” Vickie ran to Joe’s side. Dummy, I thought. As Joe maneuvered to keep her from running into him, a plastic bag full of white powder fell from his shirt pocket. No one moved to retrieve it, in fact, no one even looked at it. Everyone, like myself, was probably hoping that our father had not seen it. Not one eye went in the direction of bag, not even his.
“Vickie, get back here!” our father commanded her, but she didn’t move. I lost all faith in anyone’s ability to protect her, or me for that matter, and I went to her. I resisted the temptation to hold her hand, but standing beside her made me feel at once whole and stronger. I hid the bag by scooting it behind me with one foot.
Our father stared at the wall of family we had created: his two daughters, his two sons, and Ray, and he probably found it impenetrable. Nevertheless, he approached, slowly, with the obligation of parenthood and the stupidity of being sober and hungover. He stood in front of us, and once again, repeated his commands. “Girls, go upstairs. James and Joe, get your friends out of here, pack your bags, and get out.” Then he moved a step closer and bent over and picked up the bag from behind me. “Make sure to clean this up,” he said as he turned the bag over and let its soft powder take flight, dispersing into the air, some of it landing on the worn carpet.
Ray jumped to retrieve the bag, as futile as that attempt may have been, and accidently bolted into our father. Our father took it as an attack and he drew his fist behind him, preparing to slug Ray. I don’t know that it happened slowly because he hesitated or happened slowly only as I remember it, but the two feet of space that his fist had to cover before it reached Ray’s chin seemed like yards. Ray fell against the pool table then onto the floor, the wind knocked out of him. Joe hit my father, a brutal punch that cut under his ribs, then he kicked him when he was on the floor. The three of them ended up in a bloody grunting scramble and Vickie was the first to run away and up the stairs, I don’t know if she went to wake our mother or call the police or just to run away. The twenty some guests hurried behind her, drugged or drunk, and afraid or panicked. James ran, too, not interested in seeing any of it or being a part of it.
I screamed repeatedly for them to stop, and at some point they did. Ray and Joe backed away from our father, shaking and coughing, amazed. They stumbled up the stairs and we heard them stop for a moment, then continue, and then slam the back door behind them.
Our father leaned against the pool table, then slid onto the floor, shuddering, heaving. He looked crowded, large and cumbersome, as though squeezed into an elevator of fury and guilt. I felt unable to get close to him, much less comfort or sooth him.
“Where’s Vickie?” he managed to ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Find her, and make sure your mother is still asleep.” He made no recommendation for what to do should I find her awake. We both hoped that would not happen.
Before I left his side I found the courage to approach him and pat his shoulder, surprised at its warmth. I stroked his cheeks and was pained by the sadness I saw in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” I whispered and then ran to the steps, flicking the light off behind me thinking he might be consoled by the sudden darkness, with only early morning’s cool new light entering the window.
Halfway up the stairs I discovered Vickie sprawled across two or three steps. She must have stumbled in her drunkenness and hit her head, blood covered one side of her face. It was sticky and her head was drenched. None of the teens that saw her helped her up. I tried to rouse her only to realize she was unconscious. I knew then why I had heard Joe and Ray pause on the stairs on their way out. They had seen her, but they had not stopped.
I thought she was dead, and I started to wail, rocking my twin in my arms, begging my God for her life, promising Him and the Blessed Mother and St. Theresa and the Holy Ghost that I would do anything if she were allowed to live, I would never lie or disobey or even think bad things. I would never drink or want to kiss a boy. I just wanted my Vickie back.
I felt betrayed, not by Vickie or even the coma, but by those who did not stop for her, and by the god that did not listen to me or anyone in my family, or anyone in my city, for it too, disappeared into itself that year.
The aftermath of the riots continued and the fires burned for a few days after our family fell apart. The remains of the tragedy smoldered for months. To this day, the gutted, blackened skeleton of Twelfth Street, and a spider’s web of other city streets and neighborhoods, stands a symbol of the era, of the legal system, of the shriveling of sanity, the loosening of privacy, ownership, identity, but more importantly, it stands an icon to the shrinking of love, its abrupt ability to diminish.
We never saw Joe again. He snuck into the house at some point; belongings of his disappeared as did items from the kitchen and elsewhere. Our mother, James and I noticed that items turned up missing, and then it stopped, and we spoke about it only to each other. Rumors spread that he had been seen at the hospital. Watched her. Held her hand even. Our father made no comment.
James became a quiet, sad, heavy person. He was in a rehabilitation center for a while getting off the heroin. When he returned he worked as my father’s assistant, whisper-like, obedient, and punctual. He smoked a lot of dope and cigarettes in his basement bedroom. He never finished high school. Quite often he and mother and I would sit and sip coffee in the kitchen making small talk, somehow making amends. We didn’t use the basement much. James continued to sleep in the room he and Joe had shared, but that was all, and our mother folded laundry on the plastic-covered pool table, not one game played after that night. Our father rewired our house twice. He gardened and drank, both with even greater obsession and his garden never failed. An odd tribute to his lost children.
After that summer, my nightly prayers, once guided by our father kneeling with us at bedtime, became a solitary ritual performed in my head, and praying became random. I would no longer say the “Angel of God” or the rosary. I kept my long list of “God Blesses” which included well wishes for the souls of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the souls of the soldiers in Vietnam, floating in rice paddies, collapsed in ditches, and the lost members of my family. I stopped attending Saturday confessions, choosing to no longer divulge sins that I had, in fact, fabricated (God couldn’t really have objected to anything I did save for my fascination regarding bared breasts). I, instead, opted to smoke Lucky Strikes (stolen from my father) in the alley connecting the rectory and the grade school. When the riots had begun the hiding place had simply served as one of many perches from where Vickie and I watched the troops come in. Now, I sat and smoked alone.
I visit her less now, but at first, we went daily. Me always holding her hand. My dad didn’t like me to get into the bed beside her, but my mother hushed him. I ignored him. Finally he didn’t say anything.
I swore she responded to me. I’d feel a flicker. A warmth. A knowing. Certain she could hear me. I would talk to her and sing to her. Tell her she was better than me. Smarter. Faster.
That she could jump higher. All the way to heaven.
Image by https://unsplash.com/@jhutch
*from “The End,” by the Doors
The story captures the convolutions of family, and that mythic moment when something happens to reveal that the world was never really balanced in the first place. Good read.