The woman at the car rental had a sinus condition with a permanent sound. She was very small in her high-backed leather chair; she seemed to grow into it, slowly, like a sea sponge into its coral cave. Her office was cluttered in a way that felt staged: an out-of-body affectation, a ruse for the plebs.
She said to me, “You don’t want roadside assistance, illness, personal liability, nothing. You’re sure about that? You know about the keyless ignition; you know how it works?”
“I don’t know, Verlean,” I said, trying to pronounce the name on her desk. “But I’m sure I can figure it out.”
Her phone rang, and she answered it. “Yeah, it’s V. Uh-huh. I don’t care about that. No … I just need it clean and by four like every day; don’t bother me. Goodbye.”
I indicated a plaque on the wall. “You’re employee of the month.”
“What? Oh, that thing’s twenty years old. Ain’t I young and good-lookin’? Thanks for noticing. The award’s from when I was nice.”
The phone rang again, and she ignored it. “You need to push down the brake or the car won’t start. Push it down. You got me?”
I had rented the car in Ann Arbor because my older brother lived there. If anything went sideways, I could make a nuisance of myself at his home. Driving through town, you see what a thriving and diverse place AA is, full of pleasures and the promise of higher education. When I was a kid, going to U of M meant a solid future. Wolverines weren’t guaranteed the world, but they had done well enough to earn your respect; to have a house, car, and mortgage; to expect avocado in two meals out of ten.
I was driving up I-75 toward Flint. My idea was that I would go to my old neighborhood and see the house I had grown up in, see it as it is now, as a pile of wooden bones. This sight was to imbue me with the creative power to write well. I needed to see my father’s house as an empty abandoned husk. That was the plan.
You get off I-75 at exit 117, turn onto South Ballenger, and you drive toward the Civic Park neighborhood. As you head into town, you start to see signs of bizarre and elaborate devastation, blocks on blocks of rubble. There are people outside, some, but few children. No one seems to move with purpose. An air of resignation swirls around everything you see.
My rental car was a brand-new Toyota four-door with almost no go and a boomy stereo system. I couldn’t fathom for whom it might be designed. But the thing was silver and new, and it positively gleamed its newness as it rolled in the September sun. When I stopped down the street from Civic Park School and looked out at my old neighborhood, I thought about the insurance I told Verlean I didn’t need.
I was too far from the rigors of my childhood to feel the shame of it, just then.
The street was mostly deserted. I could see the house in the distance, but even from a distance, I knew it was little more than a shell. I got out of the car and stretched my legs. I tend to travel with snacks; Pringle crumbs fell from my trousers. I pressed the button on the key fob, which is supposed to lock the car, three times in succession. Behind me, Civic Park School loomed; big boards, whole makeshift planes of wood, covered what once were windows. A fence I used to climb for fun was stripped to a few forlorn poles.
I thought for a moment about the possibility that pressing the lock button three times resulted in an unlocked door. Was that possible? Once locked the door, twice gave a confirmatory honk, thrice unlocked the door in case you were panicking. Could it be like that?
But it made no sense at all. If one imagined the button worked through a cycle in three positions (lock, honk, unlock, repeat) there was the ever-present danger that pressing down the lock button an irregular, or unknown, number of times would result in one being “lost” in the cycle. To be more precise: If there are three such positions, positions one and three—lock and unlock—are indistinguishable from the fob-holder’s perspective. That is to say, from my point of view, an unlock and a lock would look and sound the same. Position two, the honking horn, is well distinguished from the other two; its very nature is one of separation and recognition. So, the question, again, that I was mulling furiously over in my head, as I looked upon the utter desolation my childhood street had become, was something like the following.
Is a proper formalization of the keyless door lock on my Toyota compact rental something like this:
C1 [P1(L), P2(H), P3(UL)]
C2 [P4(L), P5(H), P6(UL)]
C is for cycle, P is for one press of the “lock” button on the key fob, L is for lock, H is for honk, and UL is for unlock?
Thinking of these and other matters distracted me from the fact that I was walking away from my father’s house, toward one of the only occupied homes on the block. A young man was standing on the porch in a white jersey. He was looking out over the street, but it wasn’t clear to me what had caught his attention.
I thought I would pop up his front walk and make his acquaintance.
As I came up the cracked concrete walkway, I noticed there was something strange about him. He was big: maybe 6’2” and two-hundred and thirty or so pounds. His hair was done in cornrows, and he had a formation of small dark moles on his left cheek. His right eye had suffered a devastating wound. The organ was white, almost totally without iris or pupil, and angry lines of blood snaked across its surface. It looked as if someone had tried to remove it and failed.
He asked me what I wanted in a slow and nonconfrontational way.
“I’m from this neighborhood,” I said. “I grew up here.”
“Your car down there?”
I looked up the street at the Toyota. “Yeah.”
“You should, um, you better watch that car.”
“N—– is crazy out here.”
“I know. I will watch out.”
“What you want?”
I told him I was writing a piece about the neighborhood. I wanted to get a sense of what had happened to it since my family had moved out. He didn’t seem eager to talk, but he wasn’t dismissive either. He looked through me as he spoke, as if I were an aberration—psychic, social, or otherwise—that should soon dissipate. I asked him when Civic Park School shut down.
“I don’t know, not exactly. Could be the year Obama—the same time they made him President.”
“So, in ’09. It’s been shut down ten years?”
“Could be right.”
I had brought an audio recorder with me but forgot to turn it on. Would he be offended if I did? Should I ask? I looked back at the Toyota. It glimmered unmolested. I estimated the amount of time it would take me to reach the car running at full speed. Perhaps forty seconds.
“The media talks a lot about violence here,” I said, “violence and the water crisis. Is that all that’s going on?”
To my left, the sound of a screen door opening. He slowly looked toward the sound and spoke without looking at me.
“That’s what it is. You have to watch a lot.”
Next door, an old woman came out of her house, holding a black dog by its leash. She wore big black sunglasses and very beige clothes. I wasn’t sure, by her appearance and manner, if she was blind.
“When did the neighborhood start going down?” I asked.
“Probably the same time like the school. Could be. You should talk to Theresa.”
“That’s Theresa?” I asked, pointing to the (possibly) blind woman.
“No, that’s her sister,” he said and then pointed, “Resa! Man here wants to talk to you. Says he’s a writer.”
A second woman came out onto the porch next door. Her hair was wrapped in a blue and purple scarf; she wore white Nikes. As she descended the porch steps, whispering something to her (probably) blind sister as she did so, she looked at me with almost parodic intensity.
“You can see does she want to talk to you,” the young man said.
“Thanks. What’s your name?” I asked before turning to Theresa.
“She might want to talk to you.”
I walked over to Theresa’s yard, and she told me to stop. Behind me, the young man went back into the house. He moved with slow steps that creaked across the porch.
“Who are you?” Theresa asked.
She looked about forty-five years old. There was a deep furrow running vertically between her eyes. Her voice was deep, but it had a crumbling quality, like the voices of some smokers who yet have strong lungs.
I told her I was writing about the neighborhood. I smiled to the gums and glued my elbows to my ribcage.
“You grew up on this block? I don’t know you.”
“I lived here about twenty-five years ago.”
“What you want to know? You should leave. You don’t belong here. You should get somewhere before it comes dark. N—– is crazy out here.”
“I just wanted to ask about your experience since the water crisis and all.”
“We had a triple homicide last night!”
The blind woman was being picked up by a large black SUV. A man in a brown fedora got out and helped both dog and woman into the vehicle. He smiled the whole time and spoke incessantly. Theresa watched the pickup through to completion. Finally, she said, absently, “She going to church.”
“She go every day.”
I pressed on: “Why do you think the neighborhood is in this condition? What happened?”
“You show me which house you grew up in. Point to it.”
“It’s down the block.”
“This place, you want to know about it? It’s a hateful place. I would leave tomorrow if I could. Only one other house on this block got somebody in it. Miss Gladys house up by your car. She call us mean people. We’re not mean, we’re tired. I’m tired of this every day, when everything is that same slow sickness.”
I asked why she didn’t leave, and her eyes became large.
“You need to leave! You need to go where you belong. Ain’t nothing to learn. And you need to show me which house was yours. Point to it when you get down there.”
I turned and walked toward my father’s house. As I passed, the young man with the ruined eye came out onto the porch to stare at me. He held a bowl of cereal and milk that he took a bite of with a big metal spoon. I waived at him, but he didn’t respond.
When I was in front of the house, I stopped and looked at it. I recognized the address number and nothing else. All of the colors seemed wrong; the structure looked too dangerous to enter. The façade and roof were full of strange holes, holes without a clear history. I couldn’t guess the type of evils that had made them. Weeds had grown to overpower the first floor; they grew into the windows and across what was the porch.
I turned to look up the street at Theresa and pointed. She said, “Okay then,” loudly, and went quickly into her own house.
The young man whose eye was ruined and uncared-for went inside as well. It looked as if I had the street—the world—to myself.
The Toyota was only a few yards away. I walked toward it, clicking unlock an unknown number of times. Once inside, I pushed down the brake and pressed the start button, just as I had been instructed. A man on the radio hollered about God.
I looked through the windshield to the sky where all there was was blue. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a single cloud.