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Notes from a Hardscrabble Childhood

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My sister and I sit outside the convenience store that’s perched where our sleepy street meets the main road in our Southeast Detroit neighborhood. There is a massive NO LOITERING sign directly above us, but we don’t know what loitering means, even as it’s intended to dissuade us from plopping down in our dirty jean shorts and worn flip flops, asking people who go inside if they can spare some change. It has only just occurred to us that this might be a way to earn money having had a stranger pitch in the extra ten cents needed to buy us two Slurpees that have turned our lips and tongues bright hues. My sister pockets the coins with a giddy, blue grin.

It’s summer and we come to this store at least once a day, sometimes to buy Mom her pack of Benson & Hedges 100s, other times to trail the aisles and wish we had the cash for Twinkies and Snickers bars. Sometimes, it’s simply to cool off in the air conditioning after hours of bike riding in the August sunshine. Even after all this time, the cashier does not care to get friendly. He’s a scruffy, old man with little tolerance who is known to shout at teenage boys for fingering through copies of Playboy. He is unrelenting in his insistence that we pay for anything we take. Most days, we leave with a piece each of hard pink gum that’s wrapped in comic strips and loses its flavor seconds after it hits our mouths. The gum costs exactly a penny and is meant to be an impulse purchase. There would be hell to pay if Mom knew we were begging change. Even as she often goes without dinner to keep us fed, she is not one for charity. This isn’t always how it was, but there has been a separation and then a divorce and our mom’s paychecks for her short inches of local news columns is no match for what had been our dad’s breadwinning sales salary. It’s the early 80’s and the pursuit of child support isn’t yet a thing. If we’re lucky, Mom gets a twenty dollar check here and there.

I’m seven and my sister is nine. She’s a dare devil to my natural caution. Earlier in the summer, she flipped over the handlebars of her bike, whacked her head on the asphalt and no doubt suffered a concussion that went wholly unattended to by sheer parental unawares. I’ve learned to observe her actions to recalculate my own. As we sit outside the store, she tells me she wants to be a stuntman when she grows up, like Colt Seavers in The Fall Guy. Her recklessness makes me nervous, makes my palms sweat and the butterflies rustle in my belly. This is an acute time of unprotected’ness. Recently, two men have tried to assault Mom after our car broke down. In another month, the boys in the neighborhood, while throwing rocks at passing traffic, will cause a truck to crash into a car, killing the driver. The year before, a babysitter found Dad’s gun in a desk drawer, held it up to her hand and pulled the trigger. Her blood splattered on our wall will remain one of my first memories.

Someone complains and the cashier shoos us away. We ride our bikes downtown to the penny candy shop that’s a relic of a bygone era. The place has crumbling concrete steps and a creaking floor covered with dirty carpet. The owner is round with a gray beehive and thin lips. She is always in a sweatsuit. We know she doesn’t like us by the way she rolls her eyes when we come through the chimed door, but we greet her with our full enthusiasm all the same. We’ve managed to collect two dollars and we take turns at the counter, calling out each piece of candy for her to put into a small, brown bag. It takes some time, but she never loses count, making sure we get no more than exactly what we pay for. I’m a fan of candy cigars and am willing to part with the twenty-five cents they command of my dollar. The remainder is spent on Swedish fish, taffy, root beer barrels, and the like. At home, we sit with our legs spread, feet to feet, and dump the candy into piles between us. We negotiate and trade off as I puff on the fake cigar, blow sugar wafts into the air. It’s the making of a much more formal business affair though there’s only sweets at stake. Most of our family and friends are in similar financial circumstances. They’re a crew of factory workers, janitors, and mechanics, solidly working class as the center is falling out. We will plunge together during this era of Reaganism.

Mom goes back to college and a babysitter is hired. She’s barely old enough to drive the beat up black TransAm she carts us around town in. Jo looks like Joan Jett and smokes Marlboro cigarettes that she winds into her short sleeve for safe keeping. She leaves us in the running car on her errands, warning us it’ll explode if we touch the gear shift. We dare each other but never have the nerve. When we convince her to play hide and seek one day, she steps through Mom’s bedroom window and onto the roof where we’d never think to look. Jo likes soap operas and her boyfriend Micky, and since Mom won’t let us watch TV during the day, Jo locks us outside from approximately one to five so she can watch her shows while she talks to Micky on his shift breaks. These are restless hours, bike riding, tree climbing, trouble-making minutes and seconds. We spend much of it at the “beach,” a construction dump site at the waterfront where the broken bones of concrete slabs make up the shoreline. The beach’s curved pinky of peninsula bears a massive NO TRESPASSING sign, but we don’t know what trespassing means, even as it’s meant to deter us from climbing all over the slabs, balancing on rusty rebar and plucking our shoes out of the sucking mud. When we come home filthy with bloody knees and tangled hair, Jo does not ask where we’ve been. She serves us meatloaf and frozen fish sticks and eventually becomes like a mom to us until she actually becomes a mom a few years later and moves on.

We stop begging for change when we realize there’s more money to be made selling trinkets at the mouth of our driveway. In the basement of our ancient house, we find shimmery gold paint from another era and use it to cover everything we can find. We create grotesque compilations of shells, parts of cheap necklaces, bottle caps, and wires, cementing them together with Super Glue. Slinked in gold, we arrange them on a card table and charge a dollar each. We are mildly successful, though most people simply smile at our eager attempt, give us the buck and move on without taking one. On the weekends, Mom drives us out to the flat stretches of farmland where a ramshackle barn hosts a Saturday-night auction. The shaky stands are filled with what Dad would have called roughnecks, even though he was once one of them. Mom bids on cheap wooden boxes that we’ll later break up and burn for heat in our living room fireplace. The auctioneer sells mystery grab bags for a dollar each and one night we beg Mom to buy us one. A treat, she gets us each our own. They have hard candy, playing cards, and switchblades with boldly colored applique handles. We slip the knives into our back pockets for safekeeping.

Mom starts dating. We’re suspicious of how one man looks like a cartoon character though he brings us candy bars when he visits. He does not last long, nor do the others, and then there’s Ray. Ray generally arrives with a drunken smile and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He sometimes has a black eye or a bloody lip from the wife it takes him years to leave. He teaches us Spoons and Backgammon and swear words we’ve never heard before. One night, his wife takes a baseball bat to our car, smashing in the windshield and flattening the tires. Before the marriage ends, the wife gives birth to twin boys that Ray will take custody of. I’ll be asked to handle a large amount of their raising and will be both surprised and not when one of them winds up a felon in his twenties.

I’m eleven when I get my first job, cleaning the law office where Mom now works with Ray. My sister has managed an off-the-books restaurant job. Our days of begging and trinkets are over, even though we still never seem to have enough cash. The offices are bedrooms in what used to be a large, ornate house, the living room now a conference room, the foyer for waiting clients. Ray’s office is the largest and has framed Grand Prix posters and girly magazines hidden under the casebooks. There’s an abalone shell overflowing with cigarette butts. I find beer cans in his wastebasket and the numbers for other women. He and Mom fight when he goes drinking at the Traffic Light, a strip club out near the highway. Other nights, Mom slinks out of the house to meet him, though we’re never sure where. She tells us she won’t be long but is often gone until early morning. I can’t sleep when she’s not at home, sure that something bad will happen to her. I begin to sleepwalk, into my sister’s closet, out to the backyard. I’ll continue to do so for over a decade, well into my late twenties when I will walk, asleep, straight out of the New York City apartment I share with a boyfriend.

Things improve. We no longer burn boxes and Mom doesn’t skip meals. We’re allowed to buy a handful of new clothes once a year in advance of school starting, though we still rummage through the garbage bags our older cousins hand down. My sister gets a boyfriend who lives in the nearby trailer park. She’s fourteen. When I reach the same age, I get drunk for the first time on the coconut rum Ray leaves in our pantry. My friend and I do cartwheels in the dark and empty street, grinding glass and stones into our delicate palms. We are like falling stars in the night until we wake the next day, sick and sorry, the slices in our skin little reminders for days to come.

There’s a bar in Hamtramck that allows seventeen year-old girls to drink. My friends become regulars, knocking back vodka shots and dancing with older men. It’s a decidedly uncool place, but we aren’t concerned with cool. We’re concerned with getting messed up. At eighteen, we’re allowed to cross the border into Canada to legally drink in their bars instead. At twenty-one, we spend most Friday nights in Detroit in a basement called City Club, a dark, dank place where goths whip each other on the dance floor. We are not goth, but we are angry, raging young women. One night, a fight breaks out and someone is glassed outside the club. We’re forced to walk through a pool of blood that stains my shoes a crimson grin. Another night, a girl is jumped going into a bar a few blocks away. Her skull is smashed with a brick, her purse stolen. A few years later, when I move to New York City, friends and family warn me to be careful, that it’s so dangerous. But the young men in the housing project near my tiny apartment walk me safely home when I’m out late.

In my thirties, I write more than I ever have. I write ferociously, like I have to. Like my life depends on it. Still, I hide parts. Still, some things burrow. My youthful caution turns inward, attacking my confidence, showing up as anxiety, as migraine. I grow protective.

On a summer visit home in 2016, the number of Trump signs on scruffy lawns and strewn across the trailer park is alarming. Michigan swings red alongside its sister states. Four years pass and the men on the television resemble grown versions of the boys I went to grade school with. I know their excitement for the opening day of hunting season, the way they clean their guns across kitchen tables as bucks bleed out into tubs in the garage. I know how much they cherish an after-work beer and overtime pay. I recognize their Carhartt’s and work boots and angry needs. I grew up alongside their eagerness and also their violence, next to the bewildering entitlement, the casual racism, and fights outside of bars. Their indignance is a flash of something owed, a relic of the belief that one can work their way to a better life station. That it is, in fact, their right to do so. I find myself only surprised by the surprise of others.

And yet, time changes some things. The “beach” becomes a park dotted with swing sets and picnic tables. The penny candy store transforms into the ground floor of a luxury condominium development. Next door, a fashionable boutique sells clothes curated from the coasts. The ornery old convenience store cashier is long dead and the site is a Shell gas station. My sister and I stop there to refuel the rental car on our visits home, pumps where we once sat begging. It was always a prime location for easy entry and exit.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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