Kate Boyd

That Beginning Place

Kate Boyd

The air was cool and damp, car windows spangled with rivulets of water fragmenting the beams from street lamp and neon sign. Detroit’s carious 1940s skyline looms from the east, as we enter the warren that is the old Warehouse District. Something stirred us to visit the District . . . something in the honey-colored flickering light at that old Art Deco bar, where we sipped newly legal Absinthe and Benedictine, and ate tiny octopus with ink-stained fingers. When we paid, the bartender gave us the small, ivory-colored card—nothing but an address. He tapped the card encouragingly, winked, then moved off down the bar.

I feel too old to be comfortable at a club, clubbing being a pursuit of my teens and early 20s. My husband and I met at a club, a decade ago, on what became the funeral of our wild days. We found each other, settled down, those late-nights an old balloon collapsed to nothing years after the party.

As he drove, I reached across the seat and his hand moved towards mine even as eyes kept to the road, eyes crinkling at the corners in shared pleasure. We pulled into a lot surrounded by hurricane fence and barbed wire. The far end of the lot’s smothered in feet of trash and leaves, from what trees only God knows, nothing grows here but brick, metal, broken glass. There is a tiny booth on the lot, small window leaking tinny radio noise, and the parking attendant slinks all business over to our car. He matches the District well: asphalt colored jeans, faded grey sweatshirt, old green flight-jacket. We pay him $8 to not call his friends to ransack our vehicle. He touches fingers to non-existent cap and glides back to the booth, dope fume drifting after.

The Building is a 12-story mountain of cindered brick and crumbling terracotta facings. The door is pitted steel, no visible handle, propped by chunk of broken masonry block. He pushes open the door to a double stairwell, one going up, one down. The lower stair ends in a tangle of rusted gate, shattered plates, a charred wheelchair. A partially burned toy rabbit peers out from under the bent wheel, stuffing yellow and sad. The stairs leading up are lit by a single, industrial bulb that flickers: dot__dot_dash; we start to climb, my heels grating loud on the dust and dirt. Through our soles we feel the steady Thrud-Thrud-Thrud of a bass engine, air thrums as a hive of giant bees.

Two flights up is another steel doorway, this one painted with a large, rust-colored “X”. I push this open and we enter. The place is cavernous, huge, a starship hanger of a room—the entire center of the building carved away to rotted joist. Cross-sections of floors every two stories, up, up to the (roof?) The floor feels muffled underfoot, sawdust? The interior dwarfs the shabby tables and chairs, strewn about the perimeter, flotsam and jetsam. The heart of the building spins with people, the lighting, dim, hints at form rather than reveals. We slip our way through the crowd, he looks back at me, face alight, I feel excitement, caught from the press of sweating bodies and quick, whisper-light hands on back and thighs. We make our way to the grand bar, order drinks. The bartender has a stovepipe hat cocked at a rakish angle, his fine, sculpted face and hot dark eye make an electric thrill below the belt. The bartender’s hands are long and lean, but his fingernails, as he hands over drinks, are black with grease and filth. I sip gingerly at the rim of the glass, hoping I don’t catch plague from the ice cubes. I down the first drink, husband presses another into my hand, as one is pressed into his. Drink. Drink me. The dancers rotate, someone takes my arm and I’m propelled into the middle of the throng, hot arms looped through mine, lightening quick he grabs my arm, keep us linked. The room breathes in and out, the figures move in slow waves, weeds in deep ocean current. My hair soaks through, straggling around my face sticky and itching. Sifted through the crowd, two eddying sticks. We fetch up in a dense clot of dancers; I struggle, grab his shirt, fingers slick and cramping.

“I want to leave!” I groan to him as we press, are pressed, ever tighter, caught for a moment out of circulation. “Yes . . . but I (something)” he yells over the noise. My head feels crammed with wool and heart fluttering in my chest, the room is stifling, fetid. The hands coming out of the crowd are irritating, sharp pinches here and there like crabs, then disappear into black.

I try to figure out where we came in. I can’t see the other end of the club, the (ceiling?) is invisible, where the fuck is light coming from? It’s nothing but people, bodies, movement, steam, screams, and smoke. I think the doorway out is over there, at the top of scaffolding stairs, thirty or so feet from the bar. I yell as much, close to his ear, and we head that way—fighting the crowd counterclockwise. Gradually, painfully, we make our way. An age later, I see the steel door and recognize the rickety tables where we came in. As we make our way, a group of figures comes out of (somewhere), blocks the doorway. I am desperate to get out, get some air but . . . The Woman, elegant 50s perhaps, at the front has a stiff velvet suit of deepest blue, her black eyes glitter with secret knowledge. The men, daguerreotype roustabouts, toughs from some defunct gang like the Pug Uglies, or Alley Cats. My chest hurts, the air is sooty—black smoke billowing up from the burning lamp by the door. One wild look down, seeing a modern, black dress—though one heel has come off and my bare foot bleeds into the (dirt) flooring from where a toenail has been torn to the quick.

“You’re . . . not to leave just yet Ser and Ms.,” says one of the men, almost apologetic. “Our Lady has somethin’ wondrous fine to show you” He grins strong, strong teeth and wet red tongue. I feel myself mirroring the grin, nervous to the hilt. I look at husband and his eyes are wide, staring he says (something) and lunges at the nearest tough, who tips backwards with a rough cry. Within seconds our arms are pulled behind us, legs swooped out from under and stinking bags pulled overhead. I am moving in darkness, music thundering almost as loud as heartbeat. My head is knocked and bruised as we’re taken away.

Out of the dark I am given a swift blow to the gut, the wind is knocked from me and the bag is torn from my face. On the floor in a long room, at the furthest end is a trans-Atlantic steamer truck, standing on end. A string of fairy lights hanging on the wall behind illuminates the meat-colored, stained leather and corroded brass fitments. However, the strapping appears new.

The woman in the suit leans over me as I try to catch a breath. Husband lays next to me, legs sprawled, bag still overhead. She steps over me, tears the bag from him. He is awake, but his eyes are dull, silent, defeated. The woman steps back, and smiles a sad, radiant smile at me before advancing on his prone form. “I apologize, for this is not usually the way . . . but you’ve been very difficult to find.” she says. “No” I manage, eyes fixed on the trunk . . . could it be it’s opened a crack?

“Put them in together,” she commands with a flick of the wrist towards the trunk. The men move, those who’ve filled in the space around her, man with the teeth, silent wraith, feverish with skin stretched yellow, and one other that I can’t get my mind around.

We are both gathered up, and while I’m struggling like a fish on a pier, he hangs limp, eyes half closed, skin grey. As we are moved towards the trunk it gapes open, interior black, a hole cut in the world. We are shoved hard, pushed forward, folding in as the lid shuts with a final bang. For a minute, all I can hear is my breath, and in the blackness sparkling lights . . . as I fade out I hear you say “look at the then all . . . like tiny suns!”

The alarm is going off so I reach across the bed to poke you awake. My hand searches the cool, smooth sheets—no hint of warmth, you are not there. My eyes snap open, I am not sure how I got here, in bed, at home.

I sit up, look towards the closet—your clothes hang there same as yesterday (yesterday?). I stumble out of bed, hobble to the bathroom, am sick in the toilet. I catch my breath, then wash my face and hands over and over with cool water from the tap, light off, avoid the mirror as I don’t need to see the damage. This is silly. You must have fallen asleep on the sofa after we came home from the bar. I contemplate never drinking again as the nightmares are just too awful—not to mention the nauseous teeth clamping steel jaws around my head, and the ache from sleeping wrong, right down into the bone.

I wander out into the living room, then into the kitchen. I don’t hear the TV on downstairs, but I pad down light footed to wake you up. The couch is bare. TV screen blank with dust.

I search each room again and again. I remember other times I’ve not been able to find you, as you’ve been puttering in the garage or yard. Maybe you are out by the vegetable garden, or on the phone.

Phone . . . that plate on the wall is blinking again, and there’s a cheery, familiar voice coming out. “Pick up, pick up, pick up! Time to wake-up, wake-up, wake-up!”

I press the button and the screen lights. A thin woman with grey hair clipped to the side with a rhinestone butterfly pin, blue eyes wreathed in humor and wrinkles.

“Hi Sister, I thought I’d call and see if you wanted to go out later for drinks and maybe a dinner . . . I thought you might be feeling a bit down.”

“Yes” I say. “That would be lovely, thank you . . . how about 6-ish?”

I hang up, and know that no matter how much I search, today, tomorrow, I won’t find what I’m looking for.

Tin Cans

Kate Boyd

Gran died at the age of 67, when I was 18 years old. I don’t recall any of my four aunts crying at the funeral. “She was old,” said one. “She was sick,” said another. The funeral was terrible, and I bawled all through the service—my ribs aching from having a sharp-elbowed aunt on either side, each alternately digging as I snuffled into one of Gramps’ handkerchiefs. Gran had always been one of my staunch supporters, writing to me almost every week during the three years I spent in the mental hospital, even though I almost never wrote back. Gran sewed me costumes for plays and Halloween. Each summer, I’d draw her a picture of what I wanted, and the next week when I’d visit she’d have the fabric picked out. She’d deftly swoop the fabric around me, pinning here and there, her hands swollen and purple from Rheumatoid Arthritis. I used to call her “Bionic Gran” as she had so many artificial joints. Gran wrote me letters about her childhood, memory carried around for 50 years and given to nobody else. I’m happy that she had someone to share those awful secrets with; ten years with my own was almost too much to bear.

The last time I saw Gran alive was at her home in Pontiac. Aunts, uncles, and a few family friends drifted around the house in quiet chaos. I walked into the back room where Gran was installed. She was propped up in a hospital bed, in what used to be her sewing room. The translucent skin on Gran ‘s face showed a fine tracery of blue veins. She was piled with cotton blankets, her frail shoulders, clad in a pink dressing gown, hitched up and down with each labored breath. I sat down next to the bed, and gently brushed a few gray strands of hair off of her face.

Gran’s eyes opened and they were a wild electric blue—her pupils fine as a brushpoint. “Ah, honey—can you bring the horses around the front of the house? There’s a girl . . .” One of my aunts bustled into the room, “She’s high on Morphine. We’re trying to keep her comfortable.”

Gran’s eyes locked on mine—and in a thin voice that gradually gained in power said, “Oh honey, I don’t want you to see this wreck, this mess of a body, I was so athletic! I also want you to know, I talked to God last night and he promised he’d let your Mother live another five years.”

My mom, Gran’s oldest daughter, had been suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease for the past three years. She was in the living room in her wheel chair, unable to get through the narrow doorway into Gran’s room.

One of the other aunts came in with a bowl of red Jello—she dripped medicine on top from out of a bottle and spooned it into Gran’s mouth. Then, I was half-lifted by the arm and propelled out of the room. The arm’s owner was complaining how “Oh, she’s talking that bullshit nonsense again . . . it’s the drugs!” I quickly glanced back over my shoulder. Gran’s eyes were half-closed, her mouth a smear of leaking red.

Gran died early the next morning.

After Gran died, the Aunts swooped into the house. Within the first two weeks after the funeral, every single thing of Gran’s was sorted, compiled, weighed, or given away. A month after that, I received a typed note in the mail, along with a hinged silver bracelet. “Dear Katie, we had this leftover, and figured you’d like this bracelet—it was Grandma’s.” I don’t recall ever having seen Gran wear it. I’d only ever seen her wear gold as she was allergic to most metal.

The next time I was at what was now known as “Gramps’ house”, I wandered into Gran’s old sewing room. The bed was gone, in it’s place a modern desk and computer—Gramps was apparently getting dragged into the computer age by the relatives.

On the right side of the room was the mirrored door of the small walk-in closet, where Gran used to store her folded fabric scraps, buttons, and winter coats not in use.

I opened the door to the smell of old fur—a dry, sad, dusty smell. The closet was bare except for a few cedar blocks hanging on strings, and a grocery bag. I bent over and picked up the bag; it was surprisingly heavy.

I carried the bag out into the living room, where Gramps and a few aunts and uncles were drinking coffee and watching baseball on Gramps’ new TV. I sat down on an ottoman and rummaged around in the bag. It was full of can openers.

One of my aunts noticed what I was doing and said, “Oh yes! I found those—sad isn’t it? Mom was really slipping at the end there . . . you know, it’s common for some old people to hoard things when they get senile.”

I sat around the living room for the next hour; then there was a frenetic 30 minutes while the aunts scrambled about, making sure nothing was left behind, yelling at uncles, and eventually making their way out to their BMWs, SUVs, and down the street in a fading cacophony.

I was left sitting alone with Gramps in the living room; it would be another hour until Dad came to pick me up.

After a while Gramps said, “Remember how your Gran used to volunteer at the Lighthouse?” I nodded; the Lighthouse was a homeless charity where Gran had volunteered for over 30 years—I knew it. “Well, a few months ago, as she was leaving, she mentioned she’d seen a homeless man sitting on the curb with a bag of those groceries they give away . . . he was trying to open a can with his teeth.”

Gramps gruffly rose. “How about some ice cream? I’ve got Butter Pecan . . . or Pralines ’n’ Cream?” I nodded, grateful, through a film of tears as he moved into the kitchen. Thought the purposeful banging of the freezer door, and clatter of silverware—a thin keening, like a lone firework going off, far and away.


Kate Boyd

99.9% of the time are avoidable.
Cover for having too much fun and not enough sleep.
Explain the existence of most of my extended family.
A word that covers the infinitesimal point where space, time, construct, and will are broken.