AN EXCERPT FROM AUGUST SNOW
The house is a narrow two-story, two-bedroom, redbrick Colonial with two and a half baths, hardwood floors and a small kitchen. The focal point in the living room is a brick fireplace framed by bookshelves. At one time the bookshelves were full of the works of Frederico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Juana Inés de la Cruz, Octavio Paz and Pita Amor. My mother, Isabella Marie Santiago-Snow, would read to me from her favorite poems, her patient voice flowing like warm Juarez honey.
Of course, in our house, these poets had to share shelf space with classic noir gumshoes, who stood shoulder-to-hardbound-shoulder with the interminably boring and occasionally grotesque: weighty tomes on police procedure and criminal law, rules of evidence and forensics texts complete with coroner photos of humans in various states of disassembly and decay; there were mysteries by Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler and first-edition signed copies of Rudolph Fisher and Chester Himes. And there were the programs from five August Wilson plays we had seen as a family at the Fischer Theater in downtown Detroit.
After my mother passed away five years ago, the modest brick house in the neighborhood known as Mexicantown, once referred to as “La Bagley,” became mine.
“It isn’t what it used to be,” she’d said of our Mexicantown neighborhood. An ornate crucifix she’d brought to the hospital hung above her bed while clear liquids dripped into her slowly disappearing body. “No one’s working. People forced out of homes they lived in for years. Thieves are bolder. Freight trucks cut through neighborhoods where children play in the streets. Sell the house, Octavio. Take the money. Move somewhere else. Forget that place.”
I lied and said I would. Then we prayed the rosary.
Neither time nor politics have been kind to Detroit. In Mexicantown, they’ve been downright cruel.
In the 1940s, the Mexicans came to Detroit for the same reason blacks had abandoned the south a decade earlier: well-paying, steady work in the auto factories. The only color Henry Ford saw was US Currency Green. He didn’t care if you were a spic, an A-rab or a nigger as long as you could tighten a bolt or guide a body onto a chassis. Tighten that bolt, guide that body, get paid.
When word got out that working at Ford and General Motors meant good, steady work and good, steady money, more Mexicans came to Detroit.
Contrary to popular belief, Detroit’s “white flight” didn’t start in the ’60s. Gringos have always been “flying” out of the concentric circles of Detroit. All in an effort to avoid—well—everybody: The Germans. The Italians. The Irish. Greeks. Swedes. Finns. Blacks. Mexicans. Vietnamese. Now the influx of Chaldeans and Middle
All of us have our angry and fearsome ghosts in this mad American machine.
In Mexicantown, homes once reserved for doctors and wheelers-and-dealers were soon bought for pennies on the dollar by waves of Mexicans in pursuit of something once considered the exclusive purview of white people: the American Dream.
For the love of my Mexican mother, my African-American father bought the two-story brick Colonial in 1978. He wanted my mother to be close to her family, her friends, her culture. He was an anomaly, a black man living in a Mexican neighborhood. But eventually, through no small amount of effort on my mother’s part and the occasion of my birth, he was accepted. Toasted with tequila at Saturday backyard parties and prayed for on Sunday at Holy Redeemer Church’s Spanish-language mass.
It didn’t hurt that my father was a Detroit cop.
I’ve poured some of my settlement money into bringing this house back to life, even going so far as to buy and refurbish seven other houses on Markham Street. The only house I had demolished was one to the north of me, which had once been beautiful but was beyond redemption after two decades of broken crack and meth pipes, heroin needles, attempted “Devil’s Night” arsons, human and animal waste.
A garden on that plot might be nice.
Peppers, kale and cabbage, lettuce and tomatoes.
What’s a Blaxican without a garden?
Especially if you can’t look with pride on your hard work during the early evening or late night hours, a bottle of Negra Modelo beer or chilled shot of Cabresto Tequila in hand.
While I was away, free-diving to the bottom of various bottles of booze around the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, apparently the city thought it would be nice to replace the stripped and gutted streetlamps with eight new solar-powered LED streetlamps. A mostly ineffectual effort to ward off crime on a nearly desolate street in Mexicantown.
I’d tried to get on with my life after the trial and award. Live my life as a normal citizen. But I couldn’t quite shed the knowledge that I’d failed at a job I had loved. A Judas to the apostles in blue. The eyes on me in grocery stores and restaurants, the unrelenting judgment. I was looked at as if there was someone just over my shoulder—an out-of-focus and disquieting figure.
Everybody loves a hero.
Nobody loves a rat.
A woman I’d met in Oslo helped me moderate my drinking. A beautiful young woman with smooth brown skin, a smile like sunrise, and eyes the color of amber. Tatina. She was half-Somali, half-German, a refugee from the perpetual Somali civil war who had seen horrors I couldn’t imagine. Somehow her soul had survived, embracing light and exuding warmth. For three months beneath the ice-blue skies of Norway I held her, made love with her, felt my body levitate when she laughed. Her breath on my chest felt like where I needed to be.
It felt like home.
Of course, being from Detroit I’ve never quite trusted happiness. So I returned to a city where happiness is usually a matter of finding contentment in an acceptable level of intangible fear, unfocused loathing and unexplainable ennui.
It was early fall when I found myself back in front of my house on the short, twelve-home street of West Markham in Mexicantown. Nestled against the front door was a small package. Before mounting the steps, I stopped and looked around. A well-fed calico cat stopped in the middle of the street and narrowed its eyes at me as if to say, “The fuck you lookin’ at?” before stealthily moving on.
I walked up the steps then crouched near the box; it was the size and shape of a shoebox and wrapped neatly in brown paper. Even though I’d been gone for a year, temperatures were still elevated over my testimony against the former mayor and several Detroit cops—now dismissed or imprisoned—who had aided the mayor in his various criminal enterprises. A shoebox wrapped in brown paper could very well be a homecoming gift from anybody who was annoyed that I’d destroyed careers and made off with a sizable chunk of money from a bankrupt city.
After scrutinizing the package for a minute or so, I carefully lifted it.
Too light for a bomb. No tell-tale odors. I unwrapped the box and checked for wires. Nothing. Maybe a simple warning inside: A newspaper clipping from the trial with a red X over a photo of me. A stupid note warning me to get out of town by sundown. The clichéd metaphor of a dead rat.
I lifted the lid.
Inside was an empty Skittles bag.
At least somebody was glad I’d come home.
It’s getting so a mackerel snapper can’t pray in Detroit.
Much to the delight of Lutherans, Baptists, the affluent Catholics of Oakland County and atheists, the Archdiocese of Detroit has closed or merged nearly sixty Catholic churches in the past year, leaving the city’s downtown black, Hispanic, elderly and poor Catholics feeling abandoned by a church they had prayed in and tithed to for years. Now, the people who’d suffered the most during Detroit’s perpetual slide into financial insolvency felt even more marginalized and afraid.
Sitting tenuously on the threshold of closure were Old St. Anne’s, a grand Catholic cathedral built over three hundred years ago, and St. Aloysius on Washington Boulevard, with its rose-colored marble columns and semi-circle “well” revealing the downstairs altar and pews.
Today I went to St. Al’s—one, because I like what the Franciscan Brothers do for the homeless and elderly; and two, because, hell or high water, they persist in holding daily afternoon mass regardless of whether one or one hundred worshipers show up. With downtown’s recent revitalization, more young white suburban Catholics in Donna Karan and Pierre Cardin suits were taking time out of their lunch schedules to kneel, bow their heads and take communion. Not enough new blood to move the church safely off the closure bubble. But enough for the dioceses to pocket a dollar or two.
At the end of mass, Father Grabowski took me by the elbow and led me to an alcove. “Good to see you back, August,” he said, a smile forming somewhere inside the thick tangle of his full white beard. Grabowski had known my family for years and he was one of the few priests my father actually trusted. “You know you can’t buy your way into heaven, though, right?”
I took it he was referring to the two grand I’d dropped into the collection plate, very nearly giving Mr. Lokat, an elderly black layman, a heart attack.
“You need it more than I do, Padre,” I said.
Grabowski nodded enthusiastically, then said, “Oh, I didn’t say I wasn’t gonna take it. In fact if you’ve got any loose change left, I’ll take that, too. I just said you can’t buy your way into heaven.”
I told Father Grabowski I’d just returned from visiting my parents’ graves. Big Jake, the cemetery groundskeeper, a grizzled black bear of a man, had caught me laying down a bag of cashews, Mom’s favorite snack, and pouring out a dram of twenty-one-year-old Auchentoshan single malt scotch for Dad on the grass covering his grave.
The old priest nodded. “They’re always in my evening prayers, August.”
I said, “For what I just dropped in the collection plate, Padre, I’m thinkin’ maybe they should be in your morning and afternoon prayers, too.”
“‘And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
“That’s pretty good,” I said playfully. “You should write that down.”
“Matthew, 19:24,” Father Grabowski said with a wide, yellow-toothed grin. “Yet another reason why you’ll never be on Jeopardy, jackass.”
Like most nuns and priests I’d known, Father Grabowski dreamed of being welcomed at the pearly gates by Alex Trebeck.
I pulled an errant ten-dollar bill out of my pocket and shoved it into Father Grabowski’s hand. “All I got left. Get yourself a shave, old man.”
Unlike the twenty or so other faithful who emerged from the Thursday afternoon mass, I discovered there was a car waiting for me outside. The car—a new, brightly gleaming navy-blue Ford Taurus with blacked-out windows—came equipped with an equally bright and gleaming black driver.
“I prayed for you,” I said to the tall, slender and well-dressed driver leaning casually on the hood of the car. His expensive cologne, carried on the early fall breeze, had a nose-tingling, eye-stinging cheapness to it. Any cologne smells tawdry if you bathe in it.
“Oh yeah?” the driver said as he scanned me from head to toe with eyes shielded by a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. “Must not’ve worked. I’m still alive.” The movie-star grin on Detective Lieutenant Leo Cowling’s chiseled Abyssinian face disappeared, replaced with a well-practiced scowl. Cowling had been practicing this scowl for upwards of twelve years, ever since we were at the academy together. It still needed practice. “See you’ve been spendin’ all the taxpayer’s money on threads.”
I was wearing a pair of slightly scuffed brown Bjorn loafers, nicely broken in black Buffalo jeans, a grey Nike sweatshirt and brown leather motorcycle-style jacket that had once belonged to my father.
Hardly haute couture, but comfortable as hell.
I was also wearing a stylish Glock nine-millimeter semiautomatic that was secured by my belt in the small of my back.
My mother would have been appalled that I’d brought a gun to church. My father, however, would have considered it necessary any day of the week in the city and twice on Sunday.
In the year I’d been away from Detroit, I’d never felt the need for a gun, save for two very interesting weeks in northeastern India. Back in Detroit, old habits reemerged quickly. My Glock was one of several items I reluctantly retrieved from the storage unit I’d packed my life into before I left the country in a concerted effort to die from self-pity and cirrhosis of the liver.
“Danbury wants to see you,” Cowling said. “Get in.”
“What’s Danbury want?”
“How the fuck I know?” Cowling’s eyebrows creased over his sunglasses and he took several aggressive steps toward me. “Get in the car, Tex-Mex.”
Cowling was maybe an inch or so taller than me and in good shape. I’d seen him in the gym at the 14th Precinct. He was quick and could handle a speed-bag pretty well. On the heavy bag, though, he had nothing, his fists buckling at the wrist.
A solid jab to his solar plexus, a right to his jaw and Cowling would be on his ass watching Disney bluebirds flutter around his head. But it would have been a shame to put him down only a few feet from a house of worship.
“You know,” I began, squinting up at the diamond-blue early fall sky, “it’s such a nice day, I think I’ll walk.”
“Don’t make me—”
“Do fucking what?” I said, taking a couple steps to close the gap between us. I was already fuel-injected with adrenaline. The key was—and always had been—to know when to fire up the engine and hit the gas. After a couple seconds of hard stares, I smiled at Cowling, then turned my back on him and began walking west on Washington toward Campus Martius.
What’s the old saying about not being able to go home again?