Stories and Photos by Bridget Callahan
The night they bombed Detroit, I was making coffee in the kitchen. Dave came in to tell me.
“But what about all those people?” I asked.
“This isn’t one of those things, don’t think about it. What good will thinking about it do?” Dave replied.
“Maybe they found an ebola root system underneath the city,” I said.
“Maybe secretly a pack of wild sturgeon were attacking the underwater battlements,” Dave said.
I started crying and poured the saucepan of boiling water into the little plastic French press that Dave found me in the wreckage of his last house. It was dirty neon green. It looked like trash. I loved it.
“This is the last of our coffee; I need you to go and get more,” I said. “Is it really bombed?”
“Yup. It’s blown to smithereens. It’s Japan. It’s Dresden. No, it’s not that bad. But it’s over. Done.”
He brought in his laptop and we watched the feeds together, the warm yellow light of the kitchen and the rich smell of coffee acting as a soporific against all those sorts of negative feelings you get when you’re watching the rubble and dust of a sister city fall, put down by its owners like a sick, mangy dog.
We had been expecting it for a while, though. There had been headlines for years.
When the drinking water drought hit, that’s when I knew there was no coming back. The New York Times agreed. If your city is on the coast of one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world, and you can’t provide drinking water for your citizens, really, you’re not coming back. You’ll just continue to limp along as a poisoned patch, a cancer cell, a stagnant infection. Until one day the country’s immune system drops, and boom, you spread like an urban sickness – the malaise.
I guess the country got tired of taking care of Detroit. Maybe just tired of thinking about it, sticking there like the first gray hair. Like, the first, darkest patch of mold.
We drank our coffee on the front porch, and watched the black-velvet industrial valley lights of Cleveland sparkle. It was an amazing sunset, probably ‘cause of the ash cloud, all greens and purples and bright gold. Dave slouched in the plastic lawn chair, his head back and his hips balancing on the edge. He always looked like the coolest dude in the room when he did that, with his floppy brown hair and cowboy shirts. I had brought him back from the South Country with me, and there was something permanently lackadaisical about his attitude. He stood out among the hard, bony shoulders of Cleveland like a field ghost, and reminded me I had once lived in softer places, where pine needles cushioned my feet, and nobody knew what an ice scraper was.
“Do you think there will be a lot of refugees?” I asked, picking at the stray threads on my skirt. I hadn’t bought a new skirt in three years.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. There weren’t that many people left there anyway, right? Most of them have already moved away. And why would you leave Detroit to come to Cleveland? Why wouldn’t you get away as a far as possible?”
When he left for work that night, I watched him biking away under the streetlights, his shadow stretched out beside him on the broken asphalt. In grade school we read a book about the Hiroshima bombing, how the people’s shadows were burned into the walls by the light from the blasts. Dave had a lovely shadow, it was long and lean like a piece of cut pine, but I didn’t want to see it burned into anything. I thought about the kids I used to know who had lived in Detroit: the ceramic performance artist, the trance dj, the guy I met in Ann Arbor who busked with his accordion on street corners. Dave was right though, they had all moved away, years ago.
So I didn’t get sad thinking about people. But then I thought about the stray dogs and cats. The raccoons. The coyotes. I pictured a family of coyotes trying to swim for safety across the lake, their little snouts held up in the air, until they got tired and drowned, and I cried for hours before I fell asleep. In my sleep, I dreamed of a winter afternoon years ago, when I had seen a lone coyote, far out on the ice of frozen Lake Erie, and I woke up comforted that at least he had made it out, years ago.
We found out the next day that Canada had relented, and taken in some of the refugees, the ones that washed up.
That next week, all anyone could talk about was whether or not Cleveland would be next. It wasn’t impossible to believe. We had always claimed that at least Cleveland wasn’t Detroit, they used to make t-shirts with that on it, but now there was no Detroit, so didn’t that make us the new Detroit? By proxy?
“Oh, but our beautiful waterways!” they cried. “Oh, but the history! The heritage! The breweries! The new shopping districts! Look at the casino we built! Look at the giant chandelier! Look at the fancy new grocery store? See how much we love our young, white people!”
Which even that wasn’t exactly true. Dave and I were both young and white, but we lived in practical destitution too, squatting in a large warehouse that had been turned into illegal studio spaces by other young people who also couldn’t afford to pay both rent and school loans. We shared showers with the building. Dave worked for a catalog distribution center. The catalog was all products made by monks – fruitcakes sold to old Catholic mothers, Irish soda breads, and carved wind chimes. I was unemployed. I had been a school teacher in North Carolina, but couldn’t get a job when we came back. There was no more school system in Cleveland. Just empty schools and empty churches.
I loved it though. I have a lot of love, I’ll love anything that will let me. I loved our neighborhood, which sat on the edge of the hills overlooking the steel mill, and the long barges that came up the river still, from the Ukraine and Poland. I loved the nights when we had just a little free income, and could walk to a place on the corner and have a fancy cocktail, even though we had just as equal a chance of getting mugged on the way back, or eaten by dogs. There was even something about the dogs I found comforting.
Dave hated it. He said he couldn’t breathe, there was too much stuff in the air. When people started talking about the next city to go, he wanted to move back immediately.
“How do you want to go? The car isn’t going to make it to North Carolina,” I pointed out one morning, when we sat in the pre-dawn morning after his shift and ate dinner together. I had gone to the market and gotten real butter, real meat, real bread. He sat there in the early darkness, drinking a beer and eating, his elbows crouched over the old wooden table, and I thought to myself – this man carries my whole heart. My heart is living inside that long, thin chest of his, somewhere underneath his ribs. If you blew him up, I would die too.
“I bet I can get it down there. We may just not have a car once we’re there,” he said, not looking up from his grits. He knew I had made that special for him. He knew I already knew, and didn’t want to. Three years ago, he had come back here with me when I had felt I could no longer stay away from my Lake and my family, when the ice in my soul was too close to melting. He had left his fields and hills for me, and now I had to pay him back.
There was this particular quality about Dave, about boys I met who grew up in the South country, and why I had chosen one. They were softer than city boys. They were more like wind and grass and waves. Shifty like sand dunes. Tired like fall leaves. Sleepy like river mud. The things they said came whispering out like cave breath. City boys were hard and crumbly at the same time, like old buildings. They were beautiful and complicated and echoey. But country boys had sunshine. They were fluid. City boys had shoulders of brick and rebar. Country boys had the trick of not really existing.
And even though Dave was a shadow half the time, a reflection, a prank – even though there was no way to count on him, (no way to count him even, he was not quantitative) – there was a moment he pulled off when he looked at me, (over what, a drink, a cigarette, a chair, a bench somewhere, a kayak, a kitchen table, a downtown alley way wall, the roof of a parked car when we still had cars) and just like dark clouds coming across the mountainside there would be suddenly intention. For just a minute, a second, his focus would direct on me, a spotlight, a black hole, a cyclone, a rip tide, a taking, and then it would disappear. That was when he really wanted something. Which wasn’t very often. But he always got it. I couldn’t refuse what was so obviously a force of nature.
Sitting at the kitchen table I had taken out of my mother’s basement, where once when I was a child we sat doing homework and scratching the varnish with our fingernails, he looked at me over his breakfast, and I saw how miserable he was. He was going to leave with or without me.
Why would a human being feel more loved in an atmosphere of harshness and cold instead of a pretty, warm place? Of course he hated it, it was awful. But it was me too. It was living inside me, that coldness and dirtiness. I was terrified that someday he would see that.
The next afternoon, while Dave was asleep, I went to the bar on the corner to listen to people talk.
There was a woman who seemed like one of those rag dolls gone wild, a feral crone with tangled graying curls and an insistent voice. She lived in an apartment nearby, that was the thing about this neighborhood particularly – there was still a large underground contingent of old people and crazy people and poor people, living in the shadows among the cocktail bars and galleries. I saw her around all the time, when I was walking from the bus stop. I think I must have walked past her building on my route, because she was always somewhere around the corner, talking to someone. Luckily it was never me. This time, this weird gray sunny afternoon with ashes in the air, it was a guy in a leather jacket at the bar. His gingery, whispery hair was swept back from his face as if he had been tired his whole life.
“The first time I saw the face of Jesus,” the witch was saying, “It was in a piece of toast in the morning before I went to school. I could see the outline of his face in the brown swirls. I was scared, because I thought it meant something was going to happen. But then nothing did.”
“Nothing ever does,” said the man in the jacket.
“Well, but the second time I saw him, it was in the door of a bathroom at Mugsy’s. And he spoke to me. He said ‘What are you doing here?’ So I left. And half an hour later there was a fire.”
“Whoa, crazy.” The tone of his voice was automatic. Distant.
“It was. Then the third time I saw him, it was in a coffee cup, and he told me I was never going to be in love with someone who also loved me. And I got real mad, cause who is Jesus to decide who’s going to love me? So then I married my boyfriend, who worked at the bus depot, and one day he just left. Just got on a bus and left. So Jesus was right.”
“But here’s my point,” she said, clutching her pint glass. “This morning, while I was waiting for the bus, I saw him again. He walked by me, and asked me for a cigarette. But I don’t smoke, so I told him no. And in return, he told me that in all the world, this was the place that was always going to matter most to me, and I was going to die here, and they were going to blow us up next.”
The whole bar, which was just a few of us really, was all quiet, listening. The man in the jacket took a drink, turned around to glance at the rest of us, and then turned back to the woman.
“I don’t think you should say stuff like that,” he said quietly, as he stood up from his stool. It made a long, slow squeal as his body moved. “My family was in Detroit.”
“But then you know! You know what they’re going to do to us,” she said, her voice rising hysterically. “They’re going to burn us alive. They’re done with us. We’re inconvenient and they’re going to clearcut us like a field of dead grass.” I was surprised by her metaphor, I hadn’t expected it, and I wondered what she had done before she went crazy.
The man didn’t reply, but instead just stood there looking at her with an odd expression. Then without warning, before we knew what was happening, he shot the woman. I didn’t even see where the gun came from. Maybe it had been waiting in his jacket, maybe he had planned to use it on himself later. It hit her right in the face, square, and the bartender, a young girl with purple hair, started screaming. The man looked back at us, we were all sitting there frozen, and I could see in his face that he had as little idea what had happened as the rest of us. It was a familiar look, it struck me in the chest with how well I knew it. I thought for a moment he was going to say something, to announce something. Maybe he was the one bringing the bombs. But he just turned around and walked out. He didn’t even run.
The body slumped off the stool onto the floor, and dark-red, shiny blood began pooling on the floor. The screams of the bartender sounded far away and lonely, like they were in a tunnel. Another guy was on his phone. I knew I shouldn’t, but I walked out too. The smell was awful, gunpowder and blood and beer.
The sunshine on the sidewalk had gotten brighter, it was almost warm like Spring, and I could see the man walking away down the street, so I went the opposite way. I heard the second shot behind me but kept walking. The snow and little bit of ice had melted, so everything was wet, dark, and shiny – the concrete and the telephone poles and the windows of storefronts. I took off my sweater, it was suddenly hot even. I noticed blood on it, so I left it on the tree lawn in a little brown crumpled pile. The sunlight was warm on my shoulders, and the pavement felt solid under my feet.
I walked and walked, down W.25th, through the crosswalks and past people shopping and doing things in the happy afternoon. The wind blew hard but warm, and smelled like melted water. There was a beat with my feet, I drifted into this pattern , and just kept going, as if there was a song I was marching to. Someone’s car drove by and there was an actual beat for the moment, some top 40 dance hit. Then it was gone, but the memory of it stayed, lingering. I could hear the bass.
I got to the Detroit Superior Bridge. I walked onto its steel, and felt that particular heavy floating feeling, just to feel something. For a moment, I considered there was no more Detroit for it to be named after, only I realized I was wrong, there had been the Detroit of the Native Americans, right? Detroit had been a name before it was a city. They had disappeared, and the city had disappeared, but now there was this bridge, and countless streets all over the country, avenues. Names go on. Words can’t be blown up.
The bridge looked out over the river valley, with dozens of other bridges crossing each other over and over like a paper collage- old steel railroad ones, art deco concrete ones, new concrete highway ones further off in the distance. The foothills of granite and coal and salt dotted the landscape below me, and up over the edge of the other side of the valley, Cleveland rose gray and blue and brown before me. Everything looked so normal. A regular city, with regular people doing things and going places and talking to each other. But it wasn’t normal. Nothing was normal about it. Even the sky and the lake seemed so blue and clear, everything would just wash away, baptized.
I walked for a while, and when I got back to our street, I walked up the hill slowly, to try and remember it. The old wooden two story houses, the big trees and the way they pushed up the sidewalks around them like lava flows. The plant rising up beyond the horizon, the smokestacks tall and black as if a child had drawn them in with a streak of paint. The little messy rose gardens growing up against the old wire fences, planted by grandmothers long dead. The empty lot with that one wooden bench and a sign making it a park, the big dogs rushing to get me behind a tall privacy fence painted bright red to match the house. The random sprays of paint that dotted the street signs and buildings. All of those people over the years, spraypainting their initials on brick. spelling out their identities. I wished I had been doing that all along, tagging myself in all the places I had gone, and particularly in my home, in my neighborhood, so when they blew it to smithereens, parts of me would be there in the wreckage.
There was a closed bodega at the corner, we used to go there for cigarettes and blunt wrappers when we were little, little plastic pints of tea. Inside the darkened, grimy windows, there hung old signs with faded smiling girls, hawking tobaccos and forties, advertising fifty cents off a pack, and one flyer from a latino festival at a church years ago. On the corner of the steel and glass door, which used to ring a little bell when we walked in, to warn the clerk, there was a patch of moss that had grown up from the sidewalk, and spread its bright green fluffy tendrils up along the door cracks. I grabbed handfuls of it, and stuffed it in my pocket. I left finger shaped tears in its forestry.
When I got home, Dave was packing the books in the living room.
“You know we won’t be able to fit this all in the car,” I pointed out, collapsing on the couch.
“Were you out there in just that? Weren’t you cold?” He sat back on his heels, balanced like an acrobat.
“I was at the bar.” I didn’t tell him about the shooting. It didn’t seem to have really happened, just like everything else. He would tell me not to think about it. I remembered the days when men would get wasted with me and we’d talk about all the darkest thoughts, as foreplay. I wanted that. Dave wasn’t cocaine though, he was methadone. “When do you think we’re going to go?”
“Well, I gave my two week notice at work, but I don’t think they expect me to keep it. Everyone else is leaving too. I think the place will probably shut down before that.” The thought of all those fruitcakes, made by monks and shipped out to the wastelands, just sitting there piled up on pallets in the warehouse, waiting to be blown up, made me laugh. Dave frowned at me, and started packing again.
“Dave, what am I supposed to do about everybody else?”
He stopped, and stood up, then came over to take me in his arms. My skin closed up like concrete.
“Everyone knows what’s happening. They have to decide to leave on their own. We can’t risk our lives waiting for them to get moving. Have you talked to Sarah?”
“No.” No, I hadn’t talked to anyone. “Why can’t we just go out to Mom’s farm, surely that’s far enough away?” My mom and dad had moved out years ago to a little farm in Kingsville, in the wine country two hours down the coast.
“Jess, what’s going to be there once we’re there? I can’t get a job out there. None of our friends are there. My family isn’t there. There won’t be anyone there but retirees once the blast comes, people will need to go somewhere they can buy stuff. We need to just leave and go somewhere safer.” He pulled me closer, as if to quiet anything I might say next, but I couldn’t take that and pushed him away to get up. He just shrugged, and went back to the books.
I went into the kitchen and took the moss out of my pocket. I put it in a blender, with a carton of leftover yogurt, and a beer, some sugar. Whatever moss might need to grow. When it was thick, I found an old spray bottle we used to use on the cat before she got hit by a car, and I filled it up. It was something I had seen on the internet a long time ago, when my life was filled with craft projects and fancy recipes – the old days of expendable income. The idea was that you could spray it and make living graffiti. That evening before dinner, we walked down the hill into the valley, and sprayed our initials on every building we passed. Dave held my hand. He wrote D Loves J, the yogurt mixture looking shiny and white against the bricks and concrete. He waited patiently for me to stare at the sunset over the railroad tracks, as I tried to cry and found I couldn’t, because of him standing there, which hurt more.
The next week was filled with potlucks and porch beers, as all our friends came by to say their goodyes. Dave was right, everyone else was leaving too. We were scattering like bright fall leaves, blowing all over the country. Sarah and Ian were going to Chattanooga. Paula to San Diego. The weather was preternaturally bright and warm the whole week, as if the city could sense our exodus and was showing off just to make us regret our betrayal.
I took the train everywhere that week – to say goodbye to all those old places. I wandered around the empty downtown streets, and took pictures of all the monuments, the strange old men frozen in concrete, the library steps and hallways, the giant hanging rainbow kaleidoscope of the Galleria, which hung shimmering over the atrium like a million blank CDs burning together, and which had hung there with no one to look at it for years. There was no way to take pictures of it all, but I tried. I collected every image that hit my heart. I wasn’t the only one. There were so many of us, pointing our camera phones up in the air, as if the city itself was an impermanent art installation, about to be dismantled. People were friendly to each other, everyone said hi, but no one stopped to talk. We were all on our own nostalgic missions. There was no time left.
The distribution center closed that weekend, and we packed up the old Subaru. It was a shitty car, which wasn’t its fault. We hadn’t been able to afford gas for a while, or oil changes. I didn’t really know how much money we even had now, Dave took care of all that, since it was his money anyway. I tried not to worry or think about it. There was so much to be left behind, all the furniture, all the kitchen stuff. Anything we could replace later, though I was sore about the kitchen table. The neighborhood tree lawns were piled with the remains of peoples’ lives they were leaving behind. It was a slow refugee wave. You could see cars piled with stuff driving away every day down the street, and then one day it was us.
I took a Xanax I had been saving for the drive, and right after we got out of the city, and I had watched the skyscrapers fall away, and the houses all disappear into beige highway wall forests, I closed my eyes and tried to calm the thumping of my heart. Hours later I woke up. We were somewhere in Southern Ohio, and that was it. It was over.
I didn’t go back for five years. The leaving was the hard part. The staying away part was easy.