NCLE STANLEY HAD ROLLED UP in his gold Deuce-and-a-Quarter into our driveway on Quinn Street, an immaculate ride with gangster white walls. Mack Daddy Pimps were the standard drivers of that kind of ride at that time in Detroit. Stanley was a scruffy old codger in his seventies, bald domed with a dirty fringe of gray over his ears and down his collar, lots of nostril hair, ear hole hair, two day double chin growth, jack-o-lantern tooth stumps.
He opened the driver door and promptly fell out onto the lawn. It was early summer and the grass was coming in lush. I tripped off the front porch into the early evening and helped him up. He was a load. The grass stains covering his work pants legs smelled good. He didn't. He was working all the time and making big money in his cast iron business doing decorative porch railings, fancy fences and gates. No time to bathe. Just work dawn to dusk with breaks to eat mountains of bad food in greasy spoons. Stanley was busy running his crew and with heavy drinking in the shop and out on the jobs, E & B beer and Kessler whiskey, oceans of it. He was drunk now.
I was in an altered state myself. I had come home from work and lucked into an empty house. I put on the radio loud, dropped a couple caps of Tuinal and eased into the bath for a long soak. There was a girl in the neighborhood in my plans for the night. We really had something good going on.
I was nodding pleasantly when the radio was killed. The college station had played John Coltrane's India, then the derivative Eight Miles High by The Byrds, and then the entire Side One of Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity was going and then the music was snapped off to a din of TV, crockery banging and screams. "I want my Twinkie NOW!"
I had got Uncle Stanley up onto the porch and into a chair. He was collecting himself and getting a Pall Mall going. I lit a Kool. Stanley stuttered pretty good when he was excited. He rose up from the chair and into my face. He went into a monologue that sounded like a pop song of the day. It was scary. He was stealing my good buzz with those words spitting out of his bad breath mouth.
"Jackie.... I need ja....want ya....gotta have ya.....do the job.....do dat dere sod over dere.....sod dat plot over dere...over at Guardian Angel’s cemetery...over my Clara...gotta do sod now...no big full ledger stone now to cover her grave...I need ja to do da sod job." His eyes got bigger. "CASIMER SAID!"
Bridge was my Love Supreme. She was my baby lover girl and saving grace. We had been running the streets joined at the hip since April, since the fateful dark and rainy night of gamble and chance at our meeting and union at a Rock show at the Grande Riviera. The night that would turn into the crimson and drizzling morning of Aunt Clara’s burial.
In that April I was emerging out of a black patch. I was through with Mr. Jones, jaundice, Rock and Roll, and the vagaries of revolution, mass movements, low crimes and misdemeanors. I was on junkie leave of absence from the university in just my first year of study. Sex was a Soft Parade. The Summer of Love was long gone. I had totaled my ’62 Rambler. It was winter in amerika.
But I had a job. I was digging graves with artistic precision at Guardian Angel Cemetery. Poetry was my playground. I had an old Remington typewriter and a cot in the attic of the family home. I had a record player and Pharaoh Sanders, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler were my soundtrack. I was introduced and schooled in jazz by the MC5. But now Kick Out The Jams was anathema to me. I was a New Ghost growing in New Grass.
I had a rough work day and was passed out cold on my attic cot when I got a shout up the stairs that Katz was on the phone for me, a ghost from high school. I took his call. He was home from the seminary. The priest-dream was dead. He was in possession of the family car and proposed a trip to the Westside of the city, to a new venue, to a show of Jethro Tull and the Chicago Transit Authority.
“Christ. I don’t think I can do that. Let’s go downtown and find a bar that might serve us.”
“No. I must see Jethro Tull. I missed them in February 1969 when they played the Grande Ballroom with Spirit.”
“You sure you don’t want to find a skid row joint with an old time juke box? I feel like I just want to fade into some dirty red wallpaper and listen to some lounge music. Drink draft beer and listen to Big Band. How about polka music?”
What could I say? The boy was on a mission. He was a historian and musicologist. He had abandoned Procol Harum for Gregorian chant and got burned by the Roman church.
“What’s the plan?”
I was in tapering off mode. I had seconals and thorazine hidden in the rafters and I limited myself to one of each. I absconded with a bottle of Mateus Rose from the basement fruit cellar, tore off the Christmas paper and ribbons that were still wrapped on it, uncorked and half-re-corked it for the ride cross-town. It would never be missed in my hard drinking family.
I got another shout that Katz was now at the door and there he was pacing on the front porch. Other than a shaggy beard and missing a couple months of haircuts, Katz was decked out old-time collegiate or maybe a priest gone civilian with a long top coat with all the buttons fastened, dress pants and wingtip shoes. The top button looked to be choking him. He looked a cross between a Beat poet and Inspector Clouseau.
I was a wino with blonde locks hanging down past the shoulders of a 75 cents Salvation Army Tuxedo jacket over a t-shirt, gas station work pants and gym shoes.
At the curb in the rain was the Katz family mobile, a brand new green Ford station wagon sparkling with raindrops beading on the shine under the street light. Two girls were bunched up together in the front seat.
“My sister and her girlfriend wanted to come along.”
I jumped in the backseat. I knew the sister Katz as Sheila, a teenybopper who patrolled the neighborhood in her bellbottoms shaking her ass. She looked a little older and wiser now in the middle of the car seat. There was a chestnut mane next to her that turned around to me. I couldn’t make out the color of her eyes and I locked on them.
“You want me to sit in the back with you?”
I got a good look at her in the four seconds it took her to transfer front to back. I saw the hair again and a flash of red lips and bare legs and then she was trying to climb in.
“I’m gonna need just a little bit more room.”
I skidded across the leather a little bit and passed her the bottle of wine. She took a good hit. War by Edwin Starr came through the car speakers up front. I knew that…that…had nothing to do with us in back.
This girl had on a gray jacket that fell to mid thigh and that was it until her peep toe Mary Jane high heels.
“You like my swing coat?”
Once I settled down and got used to all that she had going on, we commenced to small talking and playful nonsense and she said that she was Michelina but I should call her Shelley and I said I was Jack but she should call me Byron. The color of her eyes was changing by the second. I wondered if she could feel my heat. She had a way of constantly glancing around and fixing on something, nodding, taking it all in. She was bringing the voodoo down on me. She knew something.
I asked her if she was excited to see the Jethro Tull show.
“Not at all. It’s just something to do while I’m waiting. How ‘bout you?”
“I’m waiting too.”
She told me that she “loathed” Jethro Tull and the band’s flute player. We launched into a discussion about Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef. Those were the players for her. She was a jazz girl. She had just last month bought a flute at a pawn shop on Gratiot. She took a bus there. She loved to ride buses, a real city girl.
This city girl had a cameo ring on the middle finger of her right hand, no other jewelry. The ring had a raised female figure in white over a blue background. The figure looked classical like Athena. I touched her hand and held that finger.
“What does this mean?”
She fixed me with gray eyes that looked like the rain sky.
“It’s a talisman to ward off lust.”
Katz was up front behind the wheel breaking down the rubrics of the Catholic rituals for his sister. Our little back-and forth in the back would flip off when something colorful would rise up in their Q & A. We paused to hit the wine. They got our full attention when we heard Sheila spout:
“Oh yeah right, that’s when the child molester starts swinging the censor.”
While we were laughing in back I got my arm around her.
“Hey baby, what’s your Confirmation name?”
“I picked St. Bridget from Ireland because she was beautiful and when the boys liked her too much, she asked God to make her ugly and he did.”
“Then the boys didn’t like her anymore?”
“Then what happened?”
“Then she consecrated herself to God and became beautiful again.”
“Bridget, huh? You chose that name. You made your choice. That’s good. How about if I call you Bridge?”
“Suit yourself, Buster.”
The four of us traipsed through a medium rain down Grand River Avenue with the mob of sheep toward the neon of a huge vertical sign RIVIERA towering up into blackness above a blank but lit marquee. The building was castle like and we played architecture multiple choice: Baroque, Gothic, Romanesque, Art-Deco. No one knew. The Riviera was 2 blocks up from the fabled Grande Ballroom, Detroit’s version of the Fillmore. The street buzz was that the Grande was closed down by the cops and secretly resurrected tonight as the Grande Riviera at this new scene.
We pushed through the gauntlet of wet refugees from the flower generation calling out TH, Mesc, Bomb Acid, spare change. The girls smelled like patchouli. The boys smelled like Labrador Retrievers. I moved up through the line-up and pressed behind Bridge and pushed her along with my hands on her hips. “Want to walk the plank with any of these pirates?” Bridge leaned her head back to me brushing my cheek with her hair and laughed. She smelled different.
We forked over our $3.50 and got in the lobby where a weasel squealed from behind a pillar, “I got downers.” I moved toward him but Bridge grabbed me now by the hand laughing. “C’mon lover boy….”
There was a mushroom cloud of reefer smoke above the stage where a warm-up Blues outfit was working through Crossroads, but the Cream version. The sound system was cranked up. Katz moved toward the music and Sheila was gone. The place was wide-open. Had the anything-goes-in-the-dark-corners feel like the full gamut of erotic exploration that happened at all the shows at the padlocked Grande Ballroom.
Bridge and I smoked cigarettes and wandered around, up and down the aisles of seating and up by the stage where rows of seats were tore out. The walls were decorated with Egyptian tomb figures of huge unsmiling men. It seemed they were 30 feet tall and teetering. The joint oozed decaying grandeur. Plaster was crumbling. Light sconces were hanging by fuzzy cloth clad wiring. It smelled moldy like a shut-down cottage.
We made it up a staircase to the balcony. Bridge said that she felt like she was outdoors. It did feel like we were up on a high exotic terrace. The walls were ornately decorated and the ceiling was unadorned but twinkling. We sat down on the carpeted floor and raised a cloud of dust. I looked up to what appeared to be a black dome ceiling with small holes letting through tiny shafts of light pulsing like stars, thousands of them. A starry night sky and as I looked closer there appeared passing clouds and a moon.
I crushed out my cigarette in the carpet.
“This is some fucking atmosphere,” Bridge said and crushed hers out next to mine.
I lit another one and exhaled up toward the sky.
“I don’t know about all this. You think it’s a fucking hippie light show they got happening?”
“I think you were trying to get me drunk in the car but I’ll fix you right up anyway. I think you are sweet. I think we might succeed.”
Bridge pulled a prescription plastic tube out of her little Oriental purse.
“This is valium.”
She gave me a couple tablets and then pulled a knife and a shiny gold compact out of her purse.
“Like I said I think you were trying to get me drunk.”
She opened the compact to a cracked mirror where she put down one yellow tablet on the glass and neatly cut it in half with her small blade, downed the half and put the leftover sliver back where it came from. Bridge had her ways.
We eased into the dust together. Underneath her “swing coat” was a dress. Everything felt like silk.
Bridge and I slow waltzed through the exodus from the Riviera after the show was over in the pouring, driving rain. There was puddle jumping and shouting in the midnight streets. There were voices trying to be heard in the downpour and over the curb water rushing down sewers and the hissing of speeding car tires. We were freezing and lost but suddenly the Katz mobile appeared under a street light and the four wayfarers all appeared at the same time for the journey home.
This station wagon had a third rear facing bench seat way in the back. I slid back there and Bridge followed me. Katz pulled us out of there and started moving down Grand River at a good clip, hydroplaning and throwing water. We held each other looking out the back window at the wake.
“Alone Together,” I said.
“I Wish I Knew,” Bridge shot back and we started playing a name-that-tune game of jazz ballads that were written before either of us was born.
“It’s Easy To Remember.”
“You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
“All Or Nothing At All.”
I heard the hum of a small motor and then I felt wet. I was coming out of a doze. Katz had hit the rear power window and it opened for the downpour to rain down on us.
“Home sweet home.”
“Where are we?”
We were parked and I looked past Bridge outside to a high wire cyclone fence and a view of the headstones of a cemetery. I turned to a white picket fence of a backyard and a house and a whole block of all manner of backyard fences and houses. No alleys here. The houses backed up to a street. Across the street was a cemetery. A semi-truck with a trailer sped past us rocking the car.
“We’re at my house and my back door.”
“Whoa. Shit, I thought I had slept through the night and Katz was dropping me off at work and that doesn’t look like my Guardian Angel cemetery even in the dark. Oh wow, but where are we?”
“That’s Forestlawn, the Protestant cemetery. You’re a mile from work one way and a mile from your house the other way.”
“And I live by Mt. Olivet Cemetery.”
“Yeah. We’re regular Babes in Cemetery Land.”
The Katz sister started moaning and Katz told me to climb back out or get the tailgate open for Bridge to split. I fumbled and got it down and Bridge leaped out like a shot running barefoot with her high heels in hand and disappeared in the dark. I leaned out calling her and then finally pulled up the tailgate. Katz hit the power window and waited for another semi to pass and then Bridge was back rapping on the glass. I yelled for him to bring the window back down.
It was another round of fumbling with the tailgate latch when Bridge pulled my face up to her eyes and was reaching in for my hand. She pressed something into my palm and closed my fingers on it and ran off saying, “Now you got one and I got one.”
Katz hit the gas and I opened my fist and saw a single silver cuff link. I remembered that up in the Riviera balcony I was slipping into unconsciousness but fumbling in my tuxedo jacket pockets searching for something good when I found something. Not exactly what I was looking for but there was a pair of cuff links. I looked up and Bridge was gone but then she was coming back to me from the balcony railing. I had never left our nest to check out the music on stage.
“That Limey flute player is kicking his leg up and down like a drum majorette when he plays a riff and whining a song that Nothing Is Easy.”
From the floor I reached up to her with an open palm with what I had found in my pocket. Standing over me she took the silver cuff links that held single tiny blue stones and held them up to whatever light she was finding under the indoor moon and stars, turning them every which way and examining them.
“Now these are Jewels of Thought.”
The morning air was fresh and good and bracing me up for the work day. It was still raining and I was still buzzing. In my head was Bridge in her swing coat swaying to the melodies of a breathy tenor saxophone playing a medley of the songs whose titles we chanted in the dark. I turned on foot through the gate of Guardian Angel cemetery and saw our old work pick-up already parked down a far section at Aunt Clara’s gravesite so I headed in that direction. There would be no hot instant coffee around the smelly kerosene stove in the storage shanty to wait for the sun.
“We got lots of problems here and you’re late for da show.”
The eyes of the boss were shiny and his mouth was tight. There was always someone or something that called for order. I wanted to stay in my own dark head wishing rather than take on the world marching to get things done.
“Shit,” he snorted and spit a gob of green, “and yesterday you weren’t done on time and den they came with dat screwy vault and we couldn’t put the tents up at the end of the day and now look what the fuck we got.”
Yesterday I struggled for 8 hours digging Clara’s hole with shovel and pick-ax in a soil of mixed gray clay and gravel and hadn’t finished. There was no heavy equipment at the Angel cemetery. We dug graves here by hand. The boss had his own hole to dig but his job was in a section of higher ground in sandy loam. He could goof and break to read the paper in the pick-up. Take a long lunch with a quart of beer in the shanty. He showed up to check me out at quitting time and had to help out. We wrapped it up quick by me swinging the pick at the clay like a maniac until my arms gave out and then the boss would jump down and clear the loose clumps. We finished this way in about a half hour and were squaring off the floor of Clara’s grave when Kritzki pulled up with the “screwy” vault.
Now Kritzki was a renegade in the world of Polish mortuaries. It seemed every family had their “undertaker” of trusted choice with their loved ones. There were just a half dozen funeral homes in the city that served the culture. Kritzki was a new comer and a joker who said he was trying to “break new ground.” He had built a huge new House of Kritzki central to all the Polish churches but just outside the city limits in the suburbs that looked like an English country estate. At first he only got the overflow from the other funeral homes but soon started pulling the new money and status clientele.
Kritzki pulled up in his shiny black hearse.
“What da hell!” said my boss man who ran up to the hearse. “Hey, you bringing dat dead one already?”
“Gentlemen…gentlemen…Mass is at 9 tomorrow at Guardian Angel church. Be ready for us at 10:30 sharp. But for now, please help me with Mrs. Golinski’s vault.”
Kritzki moved to the rear door of the hearse and opened it up to a bright gold plastic box.
“What da hell are you talking about? What do ya got dere?”
All the burial vaults that I had seen were weighty concrete boxes that were brought on stake bed trucks and lowered into the grave with a hydraulic boom with cable and hooks. The lids were heavy concrete that also required the boom to lower after the coffin was inside.
“Don’t you guys know that I only handle the best? This is a seamless double wall polymer vault that is non-biodegradable. The lid has a hermetic seal. The remains are….forever. Incorruptible like the holy saints. If you dig her up in a thousand years and pop the top you’ll still smell her perfume. Now gentlemen, if I may beg your assistance.”
Kritzki had canvas belts looped around the gold box and it was nothing to pull it out, carry it over and lower it down.
“I’ll bring the lid tomorrow. I don’t want anyone to steal it.”
Kritzki handed the boss a dollar bill and drove off. It started to rain.
“What’s dat cheap son of a bitch trying to pull?”
The boss man had turned back the covers of Clara’s grave. The 8 foot worn wooden planks were pulled from the middle to the sides. It was the Angel’s standard set-up of a lumber platform, 4 x 4 posts laying flat at the head and foot of the grave with six 2 x 8’s overtop lengthwise, three on each side. This raised deck was the resting place for the steel frame device with straps that held the coffin for the graveside prayer service and final send-off when the mourners left and the coffin was lowered down. The platform also guarded the edges of the hole and prevented possible cave-ins or else the pallbearers might fall in with the dead one. I darted around the boss to Clara’s grave to see “what the fuck we got.” The “screwy” gold vault was bobbing up and down like a drunken boat down there. There was a foot of water in the hole and the plastic box didn’t have the weight to keep it down.
“What’s so funny? Quit your smiling, boy. We gonna go to school today. I ain’t never seen nothing like dis. I’m going to Casimer’s to get dat goddam dummy to help us out on dis.”
The boss left me with a small bucket and a rope to try to bail the water out of the grave while he went to get help. Casimer owned the Granite Works monument company that produced most of the gravestones for the Angel. He managed the cemetery, sold the plots, and kept the books for Guardian Angel Church. He was the archangel of our operation and an arrogant prick. The “goddam dummy” was his helper who lived in his shop who nice people called “slow.” His name was Thad. Casimer called him “The Russian” because of the area of Poland where his family came from, a put-down. Thad could work. After a full day at the stone shop he would also pick up the slack at the cemetery in busy times and dig graves at night by lantern light. I worked with him on one tough digging when the earth was frozen. We went out for soup together after at a total ethnic joint that had “good bread that make you strong.”
In my bailing out job I could reach down with a stick and push the vault off to one side and fit the bucket down the other side and pull out frothy brown water one gallon at a time to carry it 20 feet to the road and dump it. I did this three times and threw the bucket behind the pile of grave dirt. It seemed futile. The boss would never hassle me because I outworked him and once I had told him that when we had two funerals we should load both tents at once in the truck instead of making two trips. He nodded but said “I got my own ways. I been here almost turty years.” After we knocked off the tent building in no time, he told me a story about a guy he knew who ended up in “the booby hatch because he read too many books when he was young.”
Once the boss returned with Thad, we loaded up the tents and in a whirlwind of pole raising and knot tying got the tent up for the Aunt Clara show. We even put up side curtains to keep the rain off the priest “because he was gonna be standing where the rain blew in.” We covered the hole with a piece of plywood and an artificial grass carpet with the coffin stand on top. “Dat way nobody can see what’s going on down dere.” We put down lots of carpets “so nobody gonna slip and fall.” We were all set.
“You take the truck and The Russian to the other hole and get the tent up for the other one. Don’t worry ‘bout my hole dat I dug. It ain’t got no water. I checked. I’m gonna stay here and direct the traffic and make sure dat goddam Kritzki don’t pull no more bullshit.”
Thad and I went over and got the tent up for the other job. It was going to be for a young guy. Thad told me all about it. At least all he knew about this one.
“I tink it’s a suicide. But nobody’s talking ‘bout it too much. Casimer said dis dead guy was a soldier. But he ran away from dat Viet Nam. He went hiding someplace.”
“So what are they going to have the army come out with the flag on the coffin with the guns and bugles? Is it going to be a big show.”
“No. No. It’s gonna be real hush, hush. Casimer said we gotta be real secret bout dis. Dis soldier’s not coming from church or nothing! There’s gonna be a priest from dat Catholic college on da Westside!”
“What did you say? Hush, hush?”
My brainpan began to melt. I did all I could to stifle that Deep Purple song from playing in my head, playing for the poor soldier on the run and then gone.
“Good ting we got dat tent up fast. The rain she be started up again. You got Kool cigarette, kid?”
Of course there was the Leon Thomas version of Let The Rain Fall On Me to try to focus on. It had the good flute solo which made me think of Bridge and last night. In the distance I could see the Kritzki parade coming into the Angel with Aunt Clara in the hearse followed by Uncle Stanley and his family in the limo. I made out my grandpa’s dark blue Chrysler Imperial in the procession with him and my grandma riding in it.
Last year was a tough one for me. There were two transcendent moments that kept me going, that I thought about all the time. The first was my grandma commenting on the moon landing moon walk, and the war. “Do you think it really happened Jackie? Don’t you think all that dust would be falling on us if it was true? Maybe it will all fall on Viet Nam.” The second really set my world spinning on its own axis when I experienced the music of the great Sun Ra at the Detroit Rock & Roll Revival at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. Sun Ra announced between his cosmic compositions that Viet Nam didn’t exist and that he himself had been to the moon and beyond to “a land whose being is almost unimaginable to the human mind so vital and alive.”
After the empty hearse and cars left the Angel for Aunt Clara’s wake, we went to check on the boss.
“Hey, you related to that Golinski lady? I saw your grandparents at the funeral, but your people usually get the job done at Wojack’s and nobody else from your gang was dere.”
“I don’t know. I always called them Uncle Stanley and Aunt Clara. You know how that goes.”
“Yeah. Dat’s the old ways. Listen I’m going to take care of the other ting. I gotta be dere for it. Just me. You cover up your Aunt with The Russian. The lid’s on her and she’s still floating around in dere. I heard she was a little lady. She won’t sink it down. Now I want youse to pile the dirt on top of dat plastic vault and she should go down. Den you go ahead and fill in the sides and cover her up with all the ground real nice and even. Everyting went real good with the graveside doings and we gonna finish it real good too.”
The boss always talked a lot when he was under pressure and he got in the truck and gunned it out of there. Thad got right to work as was his way. He got about 10 shovelfuls on top of the vault real quick before I could pick up a shovel and you couldn’t see the gold top anymore but she was still floating.
“What in hell is going on with dis here one?”
Thad was not a patient man and he was accustomed to his hard work producing results fast. Suddenly he leaped into the grave on top of the whole puzzle, his heavy work boots making a hollow thud as if something had gave. Then there was a popping sound and then the whooshing sound of moving water. Clara’s vault went right down to the bottom. Even the water level on the sides went down. Thad flipped out of the hole with a flourish and a big smile.
“Dat should do her now!”
“Do you think so?”
I got Uncle Stanley to give me a ride to Bridge’s house in his big gold Buick. It was slow going. He was a cautious man when he was driving when he was “beezed up.” He also was breaking down the tragic story of why he needed to lay sod on Aunt Clara’s grave. Stanley wanted something “extry special” for his wife and his idea was a monument he saw that was a big 3 x 6 rectangular marker laid flat over the the grave, that would “cover her all up.” A “ledger stone” in ruby red granite with “everyting about her on it…even some angels and flowers and a prayer carved down in it.” Casimer in the monument shop showed him a catalog and helped him pick it out, even made a drawing of what it would look like. He ordered one for himself with the same design and put down a deposit. Then the plan came crashing down with a call from Casimer.
“Casimer said I can’t have dat ledger stone because of dat special box I got to keep my Clara nice in her coffin forever! Dat goddam Kritzki box is bullshit! I’m gonna fix him up good!”
Casimer told Stanley that the ledger stone would need concrete footings over the grave to support the monument, to keep it straight and from sinking. When Casimer checked the records and found out about the plastic vault, he said he wouldn’t do it. He said he couldn’t be sure that the footings wouldn’t collapse the vault. He said he wouldn’t even want to dig over the vault.
“Casimer said I can get a nice little flat stone to put over her head with a small foundation dat won’t touch her. Dat won’t hurt my Clara. I don’t want for myself to be using no shovels or rakes or nothing over dere. I know you are good boy. You know dat kind of work. You put down sod nice. You gotta help me!”
What could I say? I had seen it all.
I jumped out of Stanley’s car in front of Bridge’s house at dusk. Bridge was having a party for her little sister and her friends who were in a court of girls who were picked for the May crowning ceremony at Holy Name church. It was a Catholic coronation ceremony for the Blessed Virgin Mary that involved selected 8th grade girls from the school crowning a statue of Mary at her side altar. May was Mary’s month.
There was a group of long-hair boys standing on the curb smoking cigarettes. One of them flipped his butt and stepped forward toward me.
“Hey man, you got any chemicals?”
“What do I look like a scientist? Get the fuck out of here.”
I could hear the organ of Born To Be Wild from the backyard. I moved through the front gate on the side of the house and walked through the dark skinny tunnel between houses. There were no driveways on Bridge’s block and the lots were small. I came out of the tunnel into a department store Christmas display. There were strings of color Christmas lights on the clotheslines and plastic Nativity figures were in the middle of the yard with Mary with a gold crown on her head mounted on a bushel basket. There was a break in the music, then a scratchy sounding 45 RPM of My Girl dropped on the turntable. Bridge was running back and forth getting the kids to slow dance to the Temptations and then she saw me and walked over. She had on my favorite dress that I called ‘the get naked dress.’
“These kids are so cute. Look at them.”
“Yeah. But the drug addicts are hanging tough out front.”
“Well, I guess you belong out front with them.”
I got the job of firing up the charcoal briquettes in the barbecue and roasting hot dogs. The tunes kept on coming. Blasting loud over the occasional diesel trucks motoring down the back street. After the food, the kids began to clear out with some of them pairing up. Bridge had been bringing me out beer in a green plastic cup so no one would know what I was drinking. I flipped the record player knob to 33 1/3 and put on a Roland Kirk album. I knew the flute would get to Bridge. Side 2 ended with Baby, Let Me Shake Your Tree. Bridge rolled her eyes.
“God….You are so fucking obvious.”
“Come on, let’s go for a walk. Let’s go to our place. You made everything nice for the kids and now the party’s over. It’s our turn.”
Bridge went into the house and came back out with our blanket and her favorite flashlight. Bridge collected flashlights. She had a brown paper grocery bag full of flashlights. This one was red and chrome with a decal of a spaceman with the lettering “Captain Ray-O Vac.” Night had fallen. We were heading to our own protected dark thicket in a wooded section in Forestlawn.
I awoke to stabbing pain and a hard weight pushing down into my back pinning me and a hand was gripping my hair and pushing my face down into the blanket.
“Hey Kent State boy, you been harassed by the piggies yet tonight?”
I could move my arms and I was waving them across the blanket for Bridge but then a shadow rushed up and a foot was crushing my right hand. A body shifted over me and I knew a knee was in my back and I could make out a car engine humming.
“Hey power to the people! We gonna have a revolution!”
A different voice. I yelled out for Bridge and the hand yanked my head up. Bridge was standing there but I couldn’t see her face. The flashlight was directed straight to her garden. The hand pushed my head back down and the flashlight moved my way and I saw a plain black boot with a shiny half-moon black patent leather toe.
“What’s the matter? You ain’t holding no good shit tonight?. These pukes are clean tonight. They got nothing in their stuff. Lemme look in his wallet.”
The flashlight moved to the voice. There must be three.
“Oh look. This Nancy boy’s got a library card and a Wayne State I. D. card. He’s a cute little Commie queer. Hey, Janis Joplin, what ya doing with this fag?”
And just like that they rushed off. I went to Bridge and she was standing in the dark with her arms raised straight in the air. Car doors slammed and a car squealed off. Bridge pointed.
“That mother fucker took my flashlight.”
The Saturday morning was coolish and dewy. I cut down my street away from main street Van Dyke Avenue to walk the railroad tracks to get Bridge, a somewhat reverse route to get to her house. In my little neighborhood east of Van Dyke, all the residential streets dead-ended at the tracks. The sidewalk concrete ended in foot high weeds and thickets then rose to the raised grade of gravel railroad bed. The other side of the track bed descended steeper to a ditch of swamp grasses and occasional cattails which rose again up to the barb wired fence of the square mile Catholic cemetery of Mt Olivet. Our little section of the Detroit world really was Cemetery Land.
I took the ties 2 at a time in a slow steady march to the rhythm of the bass line of the new Alice Coltrane album. I closed my eyes and my skating sneaker soles felt stone and wood. This path didn’t include humans or stopping at side streets. The saxophone of Pharaoh Sanders arced in my head on my Journey in Satchidananda. I had the solo memorized. Luckily a semi blasted its air horn or I would have walked into traffic when the tracks crossed Van Dyke.
Bridge was waiting for me on her front porch, pacing and reading Tristessa, her favorite Kerouac book. She was wearing a full black leotard with cut-off jeans over top and canvas combat boots she got from the army surplus store for next to nothing. She was ready to work. She wasn’t going to watch me put the sod down on Aunt Clara’s grave. She wanted to feel earth between her fingers.
We needed to go to Uncle Stanley’s to get a vehicle. We decided to walk the two miles. Bridge was walking at a good clip and looking straight ahead.
“Tristessa means sadness in Spanish and Portuguese,” she announced.
Bridge was striking with her new razor layered haircut. I had the same cut. She insisted. The chill of the morning was working on her body. Cars were honking and old guys were yelling shit at us. I draped my denim jacket over her shoulders and bare neck and we jumped on a bus. The air went from lilac to diesel.
Stanley lived in a Detroit neighborhood known as Polish Grosse Pointe, right across the street from the steeples of Our Lady Queen of Heaven church. His house was a big brick Tudor job. He was still in bed. He called us from there.
“C’mon in youse. You want coffee? I got coffee. You want beer? I got beer. You get. You get. Whatever you want. Hey you little one, give me kiss on cheek.”
Bridge did lean down and gave Stanley her cheek.
“No kiss? I get shave if you want. You give me shave. How ‘bout it.”
“It’s OK. You’re OK with me. We gotta go to work now. Take care of your wife for you. You remember your wife? Don’t you?”
Bridge gave Stanley the arched eyebrow and the long stare and exited to the dining room. We both looked at her fumbling through piles of stuff on the big legged dark wood table. It was a huge table with 6 big wooden arm chairs. Bridge took off my jacket in there. She saw us watching her and lifted a holy card.
“Hey Stanley, you picked out a nice Blessed Mother for your wife for her holy cards and Oh look, you have the Little Flower floating up in the clouds on this one. I pray to St. Therese. Can I have these? Oh, and you have a nice prayer on the back to Therese Lisieux.”
“Yeah. Yeah. You take. You take whatever you want, honey. You take anything in my house now. Go head.”
Stanley was chastened and he started sobbing.
“Look Uncle Stanley. We have to get out of here,” I told him. “You got a truck for us to get the sod? I got the tools at the shanty at the cemetery I can borrow. So we’re all set there. We’re gonna make it real nice for you over by her grave and for your spot too and for her first husband too.”
I knew Clara married Stanley out of young widowhood. Hell, Jan’s weathered little marker was right next to her. When Stanley died Clara was going to be laying in the middle of the two of them. Stanley stopped and looked up. I shouldn’t have mentioned the first guy.
“You want us to do the whole thing, right? Make the whole thing look good?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Do the whole ting. How much you want?”
“Well…Uncle, I think its about 75 cents, maybe a dollar a roll for the sod. A roll is about 9 square feet. I have to measure it all up. Just give me 10 bucks for everything. That should do it.”
“What are you crazy?”
Stanley pulled out a monster roll of bills. He peeled off 2 twenties. Then he went back in for another one. 60 bucks.
“Here. You take.”
This was crazy. I was making $1.75 an hour at the cemetery.
“I can’t take that, Uncle. It’s too much. Way too much.”
“I said you take. That’s it. Take it and you take the Buick to get sod for my Clara. I want you take my car. Clara always loved my big car. The keys are on the table with dat girl dere.”
Stanley was looking over my shoulder into the dining room at Bridge. I followed his gaze and there was Bridge holding the keys up high with her thumb and forefinger and shaking them.
There was a florist and greenhouse by the Angel cemetery, right across 6 Mile Rd from Casimer’s monument shop, called Lottie’s. They had rolls of sod there stacked high outside on wood pallets. Bridge was flitting about examining all the flats of flowers that were glistening in the morning sun after being watered. She was fighting with her parents because she didn’t want to go to Michigan State to study Veterinary Medicine. There was scholarship money involved.
“Hey, I thought you didn’t want to be no farmer.”
“Hay is for horses. I’m looking for a flower to plant on Clara’s grave when we’re done. Your Uncle Stanley is so sweet.”
“Uncle Stanley might be a lot of things, but I would never call him sweet.”
A woman with big ratted raven hair and pink lip stick walked up to me. She looked like she might have been riding with the Hell’s Angels ten years ago. She had “Lottie” on a name plate pinned to her short sleeve yellow shell sweater. She wasn’t dressed for working with black stretch pants showing the curve of her legs. She got up close to me wobbling on high heels.
“I’m gonna put my apron on in a minute, hon.”
I had stared at her a little too long. Bridge suddenly appeared at my side.
“What are you kids in a Rock band?”
“No. Nothing like that. We’re interested in purchasing some sod for some graves across the street.”
It appeared Bridge was going to handle the transaction.
OK, little lady, how much grass do ya need?”
“Talk to him!”
Bridge stormed off. I sketched the job out for Lottie and she told me how much sod we would need and how much it was going to cost.
“Just back your big machine up in the drive and take it away.”
I got Uncle Stanley’s Buick over to the sod pile and popped the trunk. Bridge joined me. We looked down at pristine wall-to-wall carpet. The spare tire must have been down in a well under the deck. That trunk had never been used. Possibly the lid had never been opened.
“Why don’t you buy a newspaper in that stand over there. We got to cover all this up to protect it.”
I went and got it. We unfolded The Detroit Free Press and spread it out across the trunk. The word “Cambodia” was in capital letters all over. “Napalm” and “Body Count” were down there. Of course there were other stories. The United States had sunk 418 containers of nerve gas into the Gulf Stream near the Bahamas. The Isle of Wight Rock Festival was to take place off the coast of England. One of the scheduled performers was Jethro Tull. We threw the rolls of sod over top and covered it all up.
Bridge and I borrowed Uncle Stanley’s Deuce-and-a Quarter again and were cruising up Lakeshore Drive along the shore of Lake St. Clair. We couldn’t find any good music on the radio. Across from the lake were the mansions of the Captains of Industry of Grosse Pointe. We were goofing and breathing fresh air but we were on a mission. I had put a little money together and Bridge had got a line on a car for sale that was going cheap. We were going to stretch out and enjoy the big Buick and then check out a ’62 Volkswagen Beetle. Bridge finally picked up a Canadian station that had Les McCann and Eddie Harris going, “Trying To Make It Real, Compared To What.”
We decided that we were going to throw-in together. We were going to do what she called “get a place and everything.” Her parents were having a house built in the suburbs and were joining up with the white flight crowd. Bridge was going to stay in the city and study with me at the urban university.
I wanted an apartment off campus near the skid-row called the Cass Corridor. I thought we could swing it if we got jobs in bookstores or in the library. Bridge thought we could get something cheaper and bigger if we just stayed in the neighborhood and rented an upper flat. It would keep me out of trouble. That’s why we were looking at this car so we could commute. There was work around the neighborhood.
Bridge thought there was no reason why she couldn’t major in math and music. She had gone to high school at Dominican Academy and did OK in an Honor’s Calculus Course where the students did some off-site study at Chrysler Corporation on their computers. Bridge thought that computers might be the way to go. Of course there was the problem of what I should study.
“Look Bridge, I don’t know anything and I can’t do anything.”
“Baby, I know that you know everything and you can do everything, but it looks like you’ll never amount to much in this world. I think maybe you should keep going like you are and write poetry. I think it’s going to be a long haul for you. You’re going to have to buckle down and get the PHD.”
This girl was a dreamer. We began to play one of our little games, chanting a litany of what I might be able “to do.”
And that brought us out of Grosse Pointe and into one of the nicer neighborhoods on the eastside of Detroit and the address of the seller of the ’62 Volkswagen Beetle. A woman came to the door and directed us to the garage in back where her husband would “be out in a flash.”
The garage was red brick just like the house and it was a big 2 ½ car job. The VW looked in perfect shape although the body had touch-up paint where you could see faint brush marks. The car had a rear engine and was opened up in the back and I moved over there to have a look. It looked clean. I could hear music from the house but I couldn’t make it out.
I looked around for Bridge and she was standing in the corner of the garage before a tool bench with peg board mounted behind it where groupings of tools were hung in perfect order on hooks. Bridge was standing tall and still with her back to me and one arm straight out pointing. I followed down her arm and past her finger to the tabletop of the work bench where there was a vice, a grinding wheel, and front and center, standing straight up was a red and chrome flashlight with a decal of a spaceman.
Girls, Guns & Hot Rods:
by Jami Beck