Excerpted with permission from Urbantasm: The Dying City, available for purchase in September 2018.
By Connor Coyne
Adam’s dad’s latest place had been down on Gurruwiwi Drive, a few blocks from me but closer to Aurelius Road and the Bellwood mansions beyond. On Kris Miller’s block, it was all cookie-cutter bungalows with different colored shutters, some red maples, and tiny mowed lawns. It was one of the nicer parts of the South Side, though now things were starting to slide. Adam’s dad was part of the sliding. His house had mint-green shutters and shake siding. It also had plywood over the windows while the front door yawned wide. Adam was sitting on the porch and, when I got close, I saw Chuck and Elizabeth hanging back in the doorway. Adam’s face was pale.
“What’s goin’ on?” I asked.
“My dad’s not home,” Adam said.
“No,” I said. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s been home a long time.”
“I thought they’d give him longer.”
“Jesus, Adam, he had to have been evicted a long time back for it to look like this!”
“I was staying here just two months ago!”
“They board them up when they’re empty to keep the scrappers out,” said Chuck.
Adam sniffed. “It didn’t work this time.”
A woozy, tinny rhyme rattled out from Elizabeth’s headphones: hypnosis, mesmerism, trauma, paralysis, and terror. The Insane Clown Posse.
“Could you turn that shit off?” I said.
Elizabeth glared at me but clicked off her Walkman.
“They’re geniuses,” she said.
“What is going on?”
“Let’s start walking,” said Chuck, and they picked up their backpacks.
“The Butt Hut,” said Adam with a rueful grin.
“What? I didn’t come out to this crack house just so I could walk all the way to a… strip club! What’s going on?!”
“She didn’t think the note was from me!” said Adam. “She thought it was from Chuck!”
“Let’s start walking,” repeated Chuck, and he started back up the street, toward Whitmore Road.
“Sara Lupu,” said Adam. “See, she got me mixed up with Chuck. When she got my note!”
“How’d she get you mixed up?”
“Because I mentioned you in my note, and I guess she has a class with you? Well she saw you and Chuck step up on Jay and…you know! Got us…mixed up!”
I had to smile at the idea that anyone would get skinny, white, pink-haired Adam mixed-up with tall, black, close-cropped Chuck.
“So did you tell her? About the mix up?”
“I told her,” said Chuck.
“So what’s the problem?”
“The problem,” Adam said, “is that she told some people about it… about how the guy who stood up to Jay Flighting left her a note, and she wants him –”
“I thought she was a lesbian.”
“So did I,” said Chuck.
“All right, Chuck,” I said. “That’s cool. She’s got a friend named Patricia and –”
“I don’t wanna see her, John.”
“But she’s so hot!”
“Excuse me!” said Elizabeth.
“Oh, don’t wig out, Elizabeth? It’s not the same with you, okay?”
Elizabeth’s glare disagreed.
“I told you,” Chuck said, “my cousin Kerm’s wanted to get with Sara a real long time.”
“Three years!” said Adam.
“And now he thinks you’re asking her out?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Chuck. “He’s pissed.”
I laughed. “He doesn’t know her that well if he doesn’t even know she’s not a dyke.”
“It ain’t funny. He will kick my ass, and he’s got friends in the Reapers.”
“Oh!” I said, exaggerated. “Yeah, better run scared from the South Side Reapers!”
“You should,” Chuck said. “They’re rednecks with guns. I’d rather deal with the niggas on my block than trash packin’ heat.”
“So just tell him it was Adam. She’s still got the note, right? Hell, have her tell him. If she knows you don’t like her, she don’t got nothing to lose.”
Chuck shook his head.
“It’s complicated… I don’t want to explain…” he trailed off.
We’d reached the end of the block, and houses and yards were smaller and dingier than before. We’d have to cross Whitmore to get to the Butt Hut, but Chuck looked down side streets for another way to go. He turned left onto Farner Avenue, which ran parallel to Whitmore.
“That’s the wrong way,” I said. Chuck kept walking. “That’s totally the wrong direction. You’ll never get there that way.”
“Chill,” Chuck said. “I know how to get there. I just don’t want to walk past Radcliffe.”
“He thinks his cuz’ll be looking for him there,” muttered Elizabeth.
We hurried to catch up.
“Is it really that bad?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Chuck said. “I’m not supposed to know he likes Sara. I know ’cause I was at his house this summer and I heard him talking about it on the phone. I mean, I… was listening in on the call while he was talking to someone else. That’s when he said she was a dyke. But he found out I was listening in. He was already pissed off at me about that.”
“What, you think he thinks you went and told her about it?”
“I don’t know,” said Chuck. “He don’t like me. Not even when we were kids. I think he’s just lookin’ for a reason to fuck me up. Now he’s got it.”
I took the shades from my pocket and put them on. They were the blue bottle shades I’d found on the underpass on the first day of school. They cooled the world around me, and the whole situation seemed trifling and stupid.
We walked in silence for a while. I kept trying to figure out a way around or through it. If it was just a misunderstanding, it would be easy to work things out. But if Chuck was right – if Kerm Coppo really was just looking for an excuse to make his cousin an enemy – then the only options were fight and flight.
We finally reached Whitmore Road a ways down, without ever having come within a block of Radcliffe. The traffic passed and we crossed the street. Now we were on my side of Whitmore.
“Say ‘bye’ to the skanks, ‘hi’ to the stanks,” said Adam.
“Say ‘hi’ to the mange,” I said. “Fucking dogs over here. My father carries pepper spray when he’s out. He got me some but I left it at home.”
As we walked, I couldn’t help but feel bad for suburban kids whose experience inhaling the great fragrances of the world – its signatures – were limited to chopped grass and lilac bloom. The American ghetto, on the other hand, was a shifting kaleidoscope of odor, scent, and stench ranging from the wretched to the divine. My own neighborhood was a great case in point: in just a few blocks, I’d caught traces of mildew, mothballs, animal sweat, spilled beer, Diesel fumes, air fresheners, ginger snaps, the reek of pot and patchouli, crusted dry dog shit and melting hot dog shit, crushed cloves, sprawls of trash, dirty diapers, gasoline puddles, the icy bite of sprinkler mist clinging to a rusting rail, chopped weeds, stale grease, crumbling plywood and stagnant sawdust, the molding paper of discarded phone books, burnt oil, matted mattresses, damp cloth, Swisher spice and cigarette smoke, streams of aerosol haze, the webby wetness of a lost umbrella hung from a chain-link fence, the tarry residue of spent asbestos, brick dust, woody soot, crisping leaves reduced to ash, singed sticks, the savage spark of snapped pine branches, body odor, paint thinner, maggoty beef, honeysuckle perfume, fried fish and chicken, floods of molasses-thick barbecue sauce steeped in crusted black pepper, rotted apples, spent fireworks with a lick of sulfur, acetone, Barbicide, enameled acrylic, and some sickening thing buried under a pile of soiled laundry. Lavender blooms we crunched under our tattered sneakers and kicked up into invisible clouds that we imagined to be thick and purple.
“So what’s at the Butt Hut?” I asked.
“I can’t go home ’til this blows over,” Chuck said. “Adam thought I could stay with his dad. If he ain’t at the house, Adam says that’s probably where we’ll find him. I wanted you there for backup… and to let you know how your plan has fucked things up.”
“Adam’s plan,” I said.
“Hey!” said Adam. “We’re in this together.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think you’re doing it right.”
“I am doing it right! I can’t do it wrong. It’s my plan, dammit!”
“I’m going after Sara’s hot friend. You’re the one who decided to go after the not-lesbian Chuck’s spaz cousin is in love with.”
“You’re going after her fat friend? How’s that gonna make you popular? Do you even understand the Plan?!”
“Shut up!” snapped Chuck.
“Man,” Adam went on, “she’s got, like, fat rolls on her sides, I just know it.”
I laughed. I took the shades from my pocket and put them on. They were the blue bottle shades I’d found on the underpass on the first day of school. They cooled the world around me, and the whole situation seemed trifling and stupid.
“Okay, Chuck, fine,” I said. “We’ll go to that titty bar. Maybe we’ll even get to see some while we’re there.”
“Excuse me!” snapped Elizabeth. “I’m right here! This whole time, okay? Do you want me to leave?”
We turned onto Dickinson Avenue, a side street connecting Whitmore Road to South Street. Halfway down the first block the sidewalk ended. A haggard hemlock – too little space and time to grow – arched up over the downward-sloping street.
“Come on, Chuck,” I said. “You could take Jay. You can take your cousin, can’t you?”
Chuck shook his head.
“Kerm is into some shit,” he said. “The Reapers, remember? He ain’t a gangbanger, but he runs with some. I paged him a few hours ago. We talked. He said he’d find me at home or school. He’s out looking for me right now. I think he probably brought his friends.”
That took the smile off my face.
“So what’s gonna happen?” I asked.
Chuck looked up and down Dickinson. He clenched his hands and jaw. He was looking around as if trying to see in all directions at once. He wasn’t just nervous; he was afraid. I’d never seen Chuck afraid before.
“You think it’s going to happen soon?” I asked. “You think he might find you… even before we get to the bar?”
Chuck laughed. “Rednecks and guns, John. What the hell do I know?”
“Can I say something, please?” asked Elizabeth.
She was obviously fed up with us, though I couldn’t tell why.
“Yeah,” said Chuck.
“You said your cousin’s got a pager. Let’s go to John’s house. He’s a lot closer than the bar. Call Kerm. Tell him you’re sorry. Not about Sara, which was just a mix-up, but about listening to him on the phone. And you weren’t hitting on the girl he wanted, and tell him you’re going home, but you don’t wanna start nothin’ with him. It wouldn’t look cool for him to pick a fight after you told him that.”
Chuck shook his head.
We started walking again.
“No,” Chuck said. “He don’t believe me. I don’t know, maybe he does. He don’t care. He wants to beat me up. ’Cause then I’ll know.”
“Know what?” Elizabeth asked.
“That he can beat me up. That he’s always a better…now and before. Always. Know he’s better.”
“So your best answer is Adam’s dad?!” said Elizabeth. “Adam, why did the state take you from your dad?”
Now Adam laughed. “Um, bad food, electricity turned off, water turned off, bad clothing. Safety hazards and unsanitary household conditions. And they got him for no seatbelts in the car, but he said I never rode anywhere. Moderate neglect. Oh, that and all the drugs. Drugs he does. Drugs he deals –”
“And this is the guy who’s gonna protect you from your cousin, Chuck?”
“So you think I should go to your mom, Elizabeth?” Chuck asked. It wasn’t a serious question.
“No, duh. Weren’t you listening? I said we should go to John’s parents. They’re cool and shit. They’ll have some idea of someone they can call or somewhere you can go.”
“I don’t know –” I started, but it wasn’t necessary.
“No,” said Chuck. “I’m gonna face this like a man.”
Now it was Elizabeth’s turn to look incredulous. “Oh, yeah, great, you’re twelve, Chuck! You gonna face your cousin and all his friends, and you don’t know they ain’t packin’ heat? You keep talkin’ about it! And you’re gonna get you killed, or beat up, and maybe John and Adam ’cause they’re stupid enough to follow you. Well, I ain’t gonna follow you. Fuck that shit!”
Elizabeth stomped off ahead of us toward South Street.
“How are you going to get home?” I called after her.
She spun around to face me.
“I’ll find a pay phone!” she snapped.
As Elizabeth continued toward South, the rest of us continued at a slower pace.
“I wish you would have told me all this sooner, Chuck,” I said. “Like this afternoon. I could have thought about it.”
“I didn’t have time.”
“Did you know it was gonna be like this? Like us just sneaking from one place to –”
“It’s been fast, man. I don’t even know.”
While Chuck was talking more than usual, Adam had been quiet for most of the walk.
“What you thinkin’, Adam?” I asked.
“You know me. If someone looks at me wrong, I scream and piss myself. I feel sick right now.”
The neighborhood between Whitmore and South – the Stanky South Side, Adam called it – was chopped up by overgrown railroad tracks and empty strip malls. One of the tracks crossed Whitmore out by city limits, and then cut every east-west street in half over the next two miles before crossing South Street just north of Ashburn Cemetery. The tracks used to stop outside the Old Benedict, which was a great place to put a fine establishment like the Butt Hut. Now the factory was gone and the bar scraped by on a dwindling crowd of loyal patrons like Adam’s dad.
We got to the place where Dickinson Street crossed the tracks. I remembered, dimly, when trains had taken this route, sometimes blocking Whitmore and South as they rocked slowly forward, then backward, then forward again, so slow with their monumental freight, pissing off the growing line of motorists. I couldn’t remember when the rails had been pulled up, but the track was already overgrown, with tall grass in the sun and belladonna choking the shade.
We turned off of Dickinson and onto the tracks. We were almost halfway to the bar.
The further we walked, the less I liked it. The cottonwoods loomed so far above us that the afternoon sun got lost in their branches, and even though there were houses and backyards off to either side, the bushes grew so thick and dense that I couldn’t see much. A stink of stagnant water rose on both sides, and mosquitoes started landing on our hands and arms. We smacked at them and they exploded, leaving tiny smears of bright blood. The crickets sang louder than the traffic, and we could only tell that South Street was somewhere ahead of us because every so often we saw a white pickup or rusty hatchback crossing in the distance.
“Things are fucked up the last month,” Chuck said. “Several dudes with the Undertakers did a job on Hastings.”
“The Undertakers?” I asked. “I thought they were over in the Os. What they doing on the West End?”
“Seems Kid Zero made a truce with the Chalks, and all those Undertakers take their orders from him. If they ain’t fightin’ with the Chalks, I guess they think they can move in on the Masters.”
“Yeah, no shit. So that’s a gang war going on and since the Masters are in my hood there’s drama even without my cousin tryin’ a kick my ass. Like they all gonna pop off any moment. Then that shit at the hospital!”
“What happened to the hospital?”
“Been all over the news. Bunch of kids from Eastern High took some drug that went bad and they jumped off the roof of St. Christopher’s.”
“Okay, yeah, I did hear about that. O-Sugar right? I didn’t know it was a big deal.”
“Are you for real?! It’s all over! They all died, except this one guy.”
“You catch their names?”
“News didn’t say their names. Why? Who you know at Eastern?”
“Nobody,” I said. “Selby’s brothers, I guess. I was just wonderin’. You think it was the drug? Or suicide? I mean, why do you think –”
“Jesus, John, I dunno. Fiends do all sorts of crazy shit.”
Purple clouds, swollen with rain, had quietly moved over the sun. Now the wind tunneled down the rail line from north to south and beat cool against our chests. It swept the mosquitoes away. Now the leaves gliding against each other were louder than the crickets, and I couldn’t hear the cars at all. It was like we were in the countryside. When the wind died down, we heard the sound of running feet coming up behind us. We all whipped around at the same time.
It was Elizabeth, her face red and flush, waving her hands to get our attention.
Connor Coyne is a novelist living and working in Flint, Michigan. His first novel, Hungry Rats, has been hailed by Heartland prize-winner Jeffery Renard Allen as “an emotional and aesthetic tour de force.” His second novel, Shattering Glass, has been praised by Gordon Young, author of Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City as “a hypnotic tale that is at once universal and otherworldly.” Connor represented Flint’s 7th Ward as its artist-in-residence for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town grant, through which artists engaged ward residents to produce creative work in service of the 2013 City of Flint Master Plan. Connor’s work has been published in Vox.com, Belt Magazine, Santa Clara Review, Moria Poetry Zine, East Village Magazine, Flint Broadside, Moomers Journal of Moomers Studies, The Saturnine Detractor, and Qua. Connor lives in Flint’s College Cultural Neighborhood (aka the East Village), less than a mile from the house where he grew up.