Friday, December 15, 2006

"Nightmares of Detroit"

PROLOGUE
(Not written yet.)

THE SEARCH FOR MR. FIVE
Most put-upon creature on the planet the Sewer Rat.

He made his way through the most put-upon city through destroyed closed warehouses shops sidewalks bridges, past crumbling landmarks like the decayed hulking green decayed stone iron train station, vast green flowing smelly Detroit River rushing relentlessly behind it.

The air was gray chilled, a foot of snow on the ground. The foul smelling Sewer Rat sensed a snap in the wind beyond the cold. Something was happening. He'd sensed the moment once before several years ago. Within minutes came the impression of movement on the once-silent streets. He heard helicopters, felt the presence of police crusiers nearby bolstered by outsiders; a vast sweep looking for fugitives, including himself.

The last time there were more questionable denizens to round up. There'd been more life-- raucous bars like the Cass Corridor saloon he'd been in when a phalanx of huge black vice cops lined patrons up against a wall to frisk bodies check id cards-- Sewer Rat had slipped through the cursory examination then. More lethal subjects had been in that very room. Next to them, at the time he'd appeared harmless.

Given his brother-- the fact of his brother; that he lived-- Sewer Rat guessed he was a particular target of this round-up. They were looking for someone!

(For Mr. Five? This notion appeared momentarily at the back of his head.)

Trapezoids of icy structures on all sides as he slid down a slick sidestreet, his feet cold inside his workboots. A closed tiny ham sandwich diner which had served local shop workers: it'd been shuttered for eight years, dark barred interior showing dust and cobwebs.

To live as he had, homeless or on the verge of homelessness, existing on the streets or in tiny rooms in druggie hotels; in prostitute near-flophouses; in abandoned buildings or the interiors of barely-operating blue-smoke-billowing cars; amid the ruins of a city, on the constant verge of extinction, for years, does something to a person. To live without dreams or hope with the feeling only of survival makes a person too-beaten down and crazy to operate again in the organized world. To be seen as, and to be, an alien creature to all one encounters gives one hardness and bitterness beyond conception and redemption.

(No doubt he exaggerated his plight. In his madness; guttural-voiced grunts his only communication with most people; scarred-eye and weather-faced; he saw himself as others saw him but not as he was in reality.)

He had a few friends left in this town. For instance: Benny the Blind Man.

Sewer Rat trudged Benny's way now, finding Trumbull Avenue, a street of fallen-apart Victorian mausoleum mansions which by a miracle of neglect yet survived; too irrelevant to be bulldozed.

Some of the tall narrow houses on the long street had been restored in a gentrification project twelve years ago; most of the pioneering gentry had fled, Detroit a city which, beyond all logic and expectation, never rebounded. Others of these ancient structures were charred shells. Benny's hideout was between the two extremes. His house was a wreck but it had intact windows. Its bannisters, frames, and plumbing hadn't been gutted. By a quirk of bureaucratic ignorance water ran inside. There was no electricity, which Benny scarcely needed anyway. (For heat he burned neighborhood scrap wood in the fireplace.)

Benny's house had the kind of medieval fortress iron bars over his windows and doors which imprisoned most remaining city residents. The barred door now stood battered and broken, grillwork on the lawn, the entrance wide open. The police or Feds had already been there.

"Benny!" Rat called as he bounded up uneven steps.

Benny sat in a rickety Victorian armchair at the center of the junk-filled orange room, too stunned or pissed; old, weak, or blind; to close the entrance. The door had been knocked off its hinges. Sewer Rat propped it up to stop the wind.

"You mother-fucking trouble making white sewer rat asshole-- wuz they looking for you?" came from the old man whose angry wide-opened eyes showed blankness.

He was stocky, of wide frame, but scarcely over five feet in height (presumably he'd once been taller). In age he must be at least 90. This man WAS Detroit; he knew everything, the entire history of the city, its rise and decline, not just the riots of '67 but the even bloodier race riot of 1943. He knew the city's Gilded Age, the glorious 1920s when the Automobile was still new and Detroit's industries were King; when wealth, new mansions, and sudden skyscrapers like the gold-topped Fisher Building proliferated. When the train station was gigantic, gaudy, and bustling with people. The richest city in North America it'd been, if not on the planet.

Could this rise and fall have occurred in one person's lifetime?

The inside of the junk-filled house looked more wrecked than usual. The storm troopers hadn't messed around. Rat took a large swig from a bottle of Jack on the floor next to Benny.

"Thanks," he said to the ancient man, who tolerated him because he ran errands now and again. Rat had in fact bought this bottle, from a tiny decrepit party store half-a-mile of urban devastation away from here.

Rat felt the warm liquid fall into his stomach then swim into his head. His tired feet throbbed, tingling with the illusion of warmth the whiskey provided.

"They never said what they wanted," the small-headed brown old man moaned from his rickety chair. "But I figured it must be you!"

To the Sewer Rat Benny appeared to be an amazement or carnival freak; a preserved talking Egyptian 5,000 years old. Maybe that was why Rat liked him-- Benny was as much a freak as himself.

In reality Sewer Rat hated blacks-- or at least had been raised by his father to hate them. This from the days when the city consisted of two armed camps; battles of territoriality everyplace as Detroit changed from a white town to a black one, full of violent atrocities mythical and real on both sides. Rat's brother had been in the midst of high-school gang fights of blood and chains before moving on to other infamies. It was where he'd first made his rep and obtained his supposed leadership ability.

"They're looking for leaders, Pops," Sewer Rat said to Benny. "I'm a lone wolf. It's how I've survived. This city is up for grabs and whoever wants it has to destroy his rivals."

He had no idea who'd want the city. Even the rich rappers and drug lords found haven outside the city limits. Yet Rat sensed that the force behind the helicopters federal agents and SWAT teams believed something of value remained; some unknown jewel or hidden treasure, undiscovered, unmarked, unseen, the merely legendary. Maybe only the spirit of the meaning of the glory and wealth of Detroit's fabled days.

He climbed narrow stairs to the top room, where he sometimes stayed. In back of pipes behind a panel in a wall he retrieved a small roll of bills. Every rat needs an emergency cache. His hand clutched the small roll in the room's shadows. He'd become used to living in a blind man's house, used to hiding in the city in holes without light so that, like a blind man or a rat he could operate without light. When he cared to shave, he did so in cold water without lamp or mirror to guide him. When he moved outside he could do so by instinct more than sight.

He unlocked a ten-speed bike chained to a cold radiator. He carried it on his shoulder down the stairs to the main room and set it down, leaning it against a thick plaster wall. Benny stared ahead blindly but knew what Sewer Rat was doing.

"I'll be right back," Rat said, leaving the bike.

He walked half-a-mile to the tiny store, a layer of dust on its tiled floor; windows grimy and gray. The Chaldean store owner behind a faded plexisglass barricade seemed pleased to see him. A young street urchin stood to the side: an undernourished black youth with yellow teeth and a cold stare; no doubt a member of this or that band of predators roaming the streets. (Or one of Five's people?) Sewer Rat noted him without so much as glancing at him. The biggest mistake newcomers to the streets make is wanting to befriend the residents, naively believing this will give them safety, when instead it heralds them as marks to be played. When Sewer Rat traveled the streets he was deaf, dumb, and blind to all around him yet at the same time saw everything. In nature the opened eye is a beacon. To not pass with eyes upon any living thing was to become invisible. Rat had mastered this art.

In the brutal store Sewer Rat's stare was no less cold and contemptuous than the youth's. Rat's scars of survival displayed themselves on his face. He purchased a pound container of baloney, a loaf of white bread, and a two-liter bottle of soda. The items were dust covered.

"Thank you, boss," the store owner said. Rat glanced at him but made no other acknowledgement.

Back at Benny's he drank some of the soda and split the bread and baloney. His share would go with him, in a jacket pocket. The rest of the soda and food he left with Benny as rent payment.

When night fell Sewer Rat took the bike outside down the house's shattered steps. The snow-filled city spread in all directions. Hints of blue lights and sirens illuminated distant portions of the sky.

"Sees ya, old man," he said gruffly to the figure in the chair before propping the broken door back in place. "Take care of yourself."

Sewer Rat had a hard journey ahead of him to the safety of a better hiding spot.

THE DOGS
Traveling too fast up an overpass across an expressway, the bike hit a patch of ice in the snow and went out from under him, the Sewer Rat landing flat on his back. Embarrassed, he scrambled back onto the bike and rode down the bridge toward downriver and the industrial heart of the city, which Rat could already sense outlined glowing and terrible in the distance.

He had more broken territory to get through first; had planned his journey to bypass the zone of the dogs. The remnants of the city before him were a transplanted illusion. He saw at the same time the sprouting, barren cold wilderness that once was and would be again.

Why he was still in this city, he didn't know. He'd fallen so far there was no place to flee to. "The last white person" living in the black city, his infamous brother had mocked him as once, with blue eyes flashing, before trying to throw Rat and his Detroit smell out of his cheap suburban house (everything for the guy a physical or psychological test), this leading to a living room brawl upturned chairs knocked-over lamps reawakened yellow-haired warrior brother who'd boxed in the army hitting the Rat with jabs and flurries of punches absorbed by the head and shoulders backs colliding with thin plasterboard walls, house shaking, a quick bout between brothers amid the comical debris of a tiny room. Afterward Sewer Rat walked dazed bloodied and angry toward the closest far-away bus to take him back into the darkness of town as his brother smiled primitively from the excitement of battle while standing like a prehistoric barbarian chieftain on his cheap sunken working-class suburban porch.

The story of Rat's life was escaping, forever running somewhere, searching to find a nook of security, refuge from the violence of this mad city. Ever had it been for him, since he remembered. Ever would it stay.

He was the last white person in the city but not any longer, he'd seen or at least heard of new faces appearing on the streets, refugees from the swiftly declining suburbs. The entire area had been thrown into chaos, the machine falling apart, people flying off from it becoming wandering lost souls.

As he rode he noticed a panorama of a hundred tiny lights ahead, reflections of the snow he guessed. Only when in the midst of their raging eyes and throaty snarls did he realize he'd miscalculated; their region had spread.

Entire abandoned sections of the city had been taken over by packs of wild dogs, this one of them. The Sewer Rat pedalled faster, too late to back out. The dogs were of all colors, one notably white, like a wolf, others darkest black, all with red demonic eyes, running eagerly trying to hit his bike, teeth snapping at his feet. A chorus of barks echoed from dozens, scores of them. A hundred, their numbers grown, their primal voices building in force, more dogs rushing from shadows to join in. "Oh shit," Sewer Rat said. If the bike slid now, if he fell off, it was over. He dropped his gloves so his hands could grip the bike handles with more feel and control as he stood on the pedals and increased his speed.

From the corner of his eye Rat noticed dogs rushing to cut him off. He had to outrace the fastest of them, those mad beasts bounding eagerly toward him. The air swept cold against his face and all he saw was frigid blackness ringed with ice rubbled buildings hostile sky sweeping insane no-man's-land city, he was alone in it with no one to save him. "NO!!" he shouted as the bike shifted side-to-side wildly from his frantic pedalling, among the dogs one of them at the same time about to be ripped apart by them flesh-and-blood in their hungry mouths he'd die unknown and unmourned. Around him a symphony of bullying barking in-his-face close noise and aggression pissing him off. No different from people: brave in a crowd. He'd love to tackle the bravest of them in a fight one-on-one, to the death. It'd not be like the fight with his brother (despite his impossible reputation, a memory of a warrior past his best); there'd be no holding back. He'd rip out the dog's eyes, tongue, and throat.

The entire pack of dogs stopped suddenly at an invisible line marking their territory. They stood looking after him with tongues out and mocking triumphant smiles.

"Assholes," the Rat said, speeding ahead then turning in his madness around, firm control over the bike, riding back in the other direction from where he'd come as fast as he could. The dogs stared uncomprehending at him then went scattering in all directions as Rat on his bike like a big dog crashed through their line, Rat yelling in a powerful crazed voice as loud as he could. He laughed at the idea of his aloneness in this wasteland. He could yell all he wanted and no one heard; nobody cared. He yelled and yelled, and howled, then left their territory before the dumb animals could regroup. He still had a long way to go.

THE PRINCESS
The Sewer Rat was now in a worse environment, amid the remains of enormous factories which made him feel like an ant. He was in Hell itself. On his face dropped the polluted smell; on all sides the steel strewn lots and towering furnaces of the industrial world. The furnace of the city yet operated; that which had once powered the entire planet. Black iron outlines against cascades of red. Roaring huge semi-trucks bursting from fenced-in yards, Sewer Rat almost run over without being seen by the monsters. They were far worse than the dogs. The tires of Rat's bike went punctured and flat from nails and metalled scrap. (His feet were protected by steel-toed boots.)

Sewer Rat raised the bike over his shoulder and walked in-between narrow spaces next to fences. On one side spread the remaining industry of southwest Detroit; on the other, to his left, as if he could fall over an edge into it, lay the surging river of the straits of Detroit which grew in power as it went downriver before exploding in one last force of release toward Lake Erie; gigantic terminals and factories rising like a wall around it. A spectacular picture. Behind, he knew, without seeing it, was the Ambassador Bridge. He saw everything in his mind's eye. This was a hard inhuman world of inhuman scale. The hardest world. The toughest city. How could any living creature survive in it? Only rats could.

The man turned his path away from the river toward a large railroad yard spreading between the monster factories; a gray repository of pollution which made the ideal hiding place. The Rat had worked in it when he was in his early twenties, ten years ago or so. He knew the yard well.

As he walked to it, up a slowly rising hill, across an evenue, he passed a black-spired Catholic church built by Hungarians or Poles a hundred years ago, now closed. He passed dingy gray shops and saloons which still served stray workers, hiding aged old-time residents, and impoverished black welfare mothers; even a scattering of Mexican newcomers; sparks of life in a city written off as dead. The people were as beaten-down as their environment. He passed a soot-coated cemetary of decaying monuments which no one visited. The relatives of the dead had abandoned the city decades ago. Ahead he could barely see-- only because he looked for it-- the silhouette of the railroad tower that was his destination.

Still carrying the bike, heavy and painful now on his shoulder, the Rat climbed a steep hill of weeds buried in snow. He clutched desperately with his left hand for a grip, his hands cold with his gloves gone. He arrived at the top and gulped cold air, his eyes alert. Silently and carefully he stepped toward the shape of the gray tower when movement noise a shadow a pair of searing large eyes caught his attention-- he hissed his mouth snapped eyes bristled the bike off his shoulder thrust behind him as he grabbed the human in Rat's territory with both hands around the throat. "Yikes!" he heard in the squeak of a soft voice before he squeezed the life out of the person. In his hesitation he felt surprisingly strong hands around his wrists while he stared with shock into a young white woman's face. Helpless before her strength or her illusory beauty he stopped his fight. He stepped back or was pushed back.

"Hi there," the girl said after a pause, regaining her composure, though her lips trembled.

She carried the bearing of a training he'd never encountered. It occurred to the Rat that he knew who she was, had heard of her the way one hears of personages of a city, such as Mr. Five; such as himself.

"Don't trust any white woman in Detroit with good teeth," his lunatic brother with admonishing finger had advised him once. "They're undercover cops. No one else has health care."

This girl had fine teeth yet looked too young to be an undercover agent. She continued shaking, her stoic front unable to hide her fear. The Rat grunted. "Follow me," he told her.

He glanced behind him to make sure she did. The young woman wore a new looking poncho and baggy trousers, was lean and almost his height. Her large eyes reflected what little stray light existed in this long railyard through which few trains any longer passed. They approached a gray horizontal tower blending into, yet at the same time looming out of, the noxious sky.

"Wait here," he said as he disappeared along the side of it and reappeared with a long crowbar he'd hidden: the tool of bar-men who opened rail cars and banged them shut. The rat saw an image of three gleaming puller engines bringing trains out of the underground rail tunnel from Canada with tremendous power. Before seeing them one would hear them coming in a roar of noise, vibration shaking the tower, its walls and floors, three yellow diesel engines pulling a hundred-car train leaving a layer of soot on everything as they went by.

It was a big joke in the Del Ray neighborhood years ago that Hungarian immigrants would hang their just-washed sheets on clothes-lines behind their shack houses only to see the white sheets tint brown from the polluting shops, slaughterhouse glue factories, and diesel engines of the neighborhood-- as well as from the huge smokestacks of the nearby Mammoth complex. Bizarrely, the never-ending pollution had been a sign of economic health: available jobs. Now that most of the jobs were gone, only the layers of pollution were left.

The Rat used the crowbar to force open the heavy metal door into the tower. The girl hesitated. "It's getting colder," he said, motioning toward the sky. "This is refuge." She stepped in and he pulled the heavy door closed behind them.

He was out-of-practice talking to women. Try not to scare her, he thought, though some quality about her scared him. It was a factor beyond his comprehension-- maybe that, unlike with the dogs, he was now encountering an animal more intelligent than himself. With an instinct of survival he sensed this. The question was whether she realized it herself.

Yes, he'd heard about the girl, a runaway from the declining neighborhoods of Grosse Pointe; the once-glamorous haven of the automotice rich which was now in a state of collapse. The turning clock. "The Princess," people called her. He'd wondered if she existed for real and now she was right in front of him.

The building smelled of sulfur, soot, and urine. The Rat made his way up the metal stairs which rose in darkness. The girl followed. They passed several doors numbered "2," "3," "4," in large bright painted letters before Rat pulled one open. They entered a room at the top of the tower, window overlooking the entire yard.

Beyond lay the awesome smokestacks of Mammoth Motors pouring lighted clouds of fiery orange smoke toward the heavens. A living beast. It never failed to be an impressive sight for him. Once it'd been the wonder of the world. "The Arsenal of Democracy": At its birth the greatest industrial complex ever known. Yet it throbbed! The company a heartbeat away from bankruptcy but not silent yet. What maneuverings took place to save this corporation, this city, in the offices of their headquarters; what conversations between the powerful executives, their many designers and engineers? They existed in a circle of activity and knowledge far above him.

The girl continued to shiver, a look of displeasure on her features.

"The john's in the basement, all the way down," he told her. "Kind of smells." A men's john at that. Underground dungeons. He'd have to use it himself. For now he took off his jacket and pulled blankets out of a steel locker against the wall. Two large gray metal desks faced each other in the center of the room.

"Do I have to walk all the way down there?" she complained. "I mean, is that the only one?"

Preppy irritation; unwillingness to walk alone through the unfamiliar darkness of the solid structure. Then she was gone. Again, something about her cautioned him: a ready ability to overcome fear.

As he gazed at the belching old smokestacks which never stopped, he sensed that everything was related. The sweep of police cars and helicopters were connected to the fate of what sat like a resting giant before him. Did someone feel they could save Detroit by capturing the likes of him? A last desperate battle for control had opened. The girl returned and the Sewer Rat shut down his thoughts.

1 comment:

King said...

Standard Disclaimer: This excerpt is Fiction. No character is based on myself. And so on.