School was out by a quarter-after-twelve. Every day, I would walk outside the school building and smoke would shoot from behind the line of trees, so I knew that Pa and all of the other factory men were hard at work. Pa explained that the smoke was a sign of a good economy.
“If it weren’t for that smoke, we’d be on the streets,” he’d say, raising my eyes to his with a single finger dug under my chin, “Understand?” I didn’t understand but nodded like I did.
Ma would come home from the piers just before Pa and she would have tar under every one of her fingernails and a solid layer of soot covering her face. She would come in the door, shut it behind her quick, and pull the blinds down to the floor so light couldn’t get in. Most days I forgot what she looked like without layers of dirt covering her face. She’d take off her work cap, smiling in my direction, and I’d remember as soon as I’d forgotten.
Every day, Pa would come home, sore and dirty from spending time at the factory all day. He’d kick his tall leather boots to the side of the door and he’d go straight to the cupboard, find a shot glass and pour something as thick as syrup into it. When he swallowed it, he’d make an ugly face and sometimes I’d laugh. The more times he did that, the redder his face would get, and the redder his face would get, the more likely he was to push Ma around and after that, it wasn’t so funny anymore so I’d go downstairs and take my trains with me. It was important that the people on the trains got where they needed to go.
Always in a hurry, Ma was. She’d give me a big kiss and she’d run to the den and in 10 seconds flat she’d be back and changed into her denim to work the dishes like Pa’s there telling her to. She’d work from her elbows, scraping the plates with steel and drying them after with her ruined, blue terry cloth. Right after cleaning the sink, she would get to folding Pa’s work clothes up on the line just outside the back door. Then she’d fold mine. Then hers. She did all of this under the tarp that Mr. Ferris from next door lent us to keep away all of the ash. I watched all of this from the table while my trains were getting refueled. Occasionally she’d look back in the middle of her cleaning, flex her arm upward like she’s pulling a conductor’s horn and let out a roaring choo-choo. I’d laugh, and let my stomach burn, and Ma would join in and the house would be filled with our voices. We’d barely hear Pa stomping mud off of his steel-toe boots at the door.
Every day, I would go outside and watch ash fall from the clouds of smoke above our town near the water. Ma said it reminded her of the snow up North. She said they would catch it on their tongues and dance in it. Ma said they’d make angels and igloos and she said it was Heaven, or as close to it as she’d ever been. The ash was salty and smelled like Pa’s boiled eggs but I stuck my tongue out anyway. I wanted to get to Heaven.
“There’s no sense in that type of play,” Ma scolded, brushing the ash from my coat, hiding a smile. Pa didn’t hide smiles. Pa didn’t smile. He was always too tired: too tired to talk about the trains, the passengers, or where they were going.
Sometimes Ma would crawl into my bedroll with me, long after Pa retired to his. Long after the passengers met their destinations and the conductors with their families at home, and long after the trains were stationed.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be on one of those trains?” She’d say, holding the trains up to the lamplight. Pa’s snores could be heard across the house, and we’d laugh under the blankets so Pa couldn’t hear us. Then she’d wrap her arms around me and we’d fall asleep just like that, sharing the bedding with my trains and I.
King of the Rats
Over time, the Detroit subway system’s primary use shifted from a means of transportation into a cavernous, expanding grotto for the homeless. It was refuge, and perhaps the best-case scenario for the unfortunate and underprivileged, where those cast aside by society could congregate to light metal bins on fire for warmth or to exchange food stamps for drugs and alcohol without legislation or the law’s perturbation. But life in Detroit’s underbelly only existed insofar as the subway tracks ran parallel to it—anything beyond that was considered an extension of the institutionalized world above ground. A world brimming with godless people, bustling to-and-fro in their formalwear and fedoras, hailing taxis, shouting headlines, and gossiping amongst each other to pass the time. There was none of that underground. The mole people were too underdeveloped, too quiet, and too neighborly of a faction to be bothered by such trivialities. Life was simply life in the sewers, though that hadn’t always been the case.
At once, there was poverty. There were oily politicians with greedy agendas, and inoperative, misplaced attempts at gentrification that only further exacerbated the ongoing economic collapse. There was refuse in the streets and bedrolls on the sidewalks, smog that eclipsed the sky overhead, and a constant lull in conversation that turned a would-be friendly exchange into a sour, cumbersome chore. There was a general feeling of anxiety and hopelessness and it seemed to the citizens of Detroit that something had been taken—or perhaps stolen—from their city.
And among it all, the refuse, the pestilence, and the amoral, there was Martin. Martin, with his short hair slicked back into an oily shield, with a briefcase attached to his waist, and Martin in his creaseless, straight-legged suit, with legs that overtook the majority of his body’s length. He moved slowly and always with an enormous stride. He had an angular, crooked nose that hung over his lips like an awning. He had two thin eyebrows, two brown eyes, a birth mark below his right cheek bone, a keloid on his neck, and a frown that seemed to form on its own.
After 24 years, he realized that most doorways would force his head to duck, and when curious children, with their noses tilted toward the sky, glared at him, he would do best to smile or wave.
Martin sat in his office chair, scribbling numbers onto some paper with charts and tables for a while before pushing himself from the desk and lazily sinking back into his seat. He looked to his lower half, noting just how small this seat was for the first time, and thinking it ridiculous how far his knees rose past his waistline. He stood up and walked to the floor-to-ceiling window that covered the southernmost wall of his office, looking toward the busy street.
Just five stories below, the street roared with energy as a surge of people rushed across the avenue, commencing the evening commute. A beam of light passed over Martin’s face and he traced it to the adjacent municipal building’s revolving door that caught the sun’s light anytime someone entered or exited.
A knocking at the door stole Martin’s attention away from the street.
“Come in.” He said with only half of his attention in his tone.
A man with peppered hair and a soul patch crept in. His glasses sat toward the end of his large snout, which, by Martin’s standards, was quite colorful compared with his personality. He started sentences with his mouth and finished them with his hands, and for some reason, his enormous belly had a habit of collecting wayward glances from conversational partners. Martin harbored an active indifference towards him specifically, and often thought of him as annoying, short in stature, and manic around women.
Martin cleared his throat, and said, “Hello, Sharpe.”
“Hello Martin,” The man replied hoarsely, sitting back into his seat.
“Remember that reports are due by Friday,” Sharpe said almost officiously, flashing his sly smile. “I heard from Danny in advertising that Johnson’s been watching the branches closely to try and pin down which one is losing the company the most money.” Sharpe’s smile broke and he added, “Our branch is a contender.”
Sharpe’s words were spoken clearly and reached Martin’s ears with ease, but all the same, he looked back toward the busy street. “I heard.” Martin said gauntly.