On the weekend of the winter solstice, Ernie and I drive across the state—from our little town of Saugatuck to Detroit—to celebrate an early Christmas with my parents. The big event the four of us are looking forward to is a show by James Carter, a native Detroiter and world-renowned sax player. We saw him at the jazz fest over Labor Day weekend, we heard his bright, swift notes stream out into the blue summer sky, and we also heard the rocking group that will join him on this night, a Django Reinhardt-inspired quartet called Hot Club of Detroit.
Now it is forty degrees colder, and a huge snowstorm hit Detroit yesterday, and the streets have not been plowed. All except the most traveled are filled with ridges of slush and snow; higher mounds of snow rise between the sidewalks and the streets. We think we might have trouble parking and then walking to the club, especially since my dad is unsteady on his feet, so I suggest we take a cab. But first my mom calls the club and asks about the parking situation. “Oh, wonderful,” she says. “Great.” Then she hangs up and announces, “We can drive there—they have valet parking.”
We ride down in the elevator of my parents’ condo, and I leave my mom and dad and Ernie in the lobby and walk out into the garage to retrieve my car. It’s a good car for slush and snow—a Subaru with all-wheel drive. The man I bought it from second-hand gave me an extra key and said, “This is the valet key.”
I turned it over in my palm.
“It’ll start the car, but it won’t open the trunk,” the man explained. “So when you use a valet service, you can lock your valuables in the trunk.”
What valuables? I thought. And I never use valet service. Now, three years later, I can’t remember where I’ve put the key. But the only things in my trunk are a rusty shovel, an old umbrella, and some flattened cardboard I’ve been meaning to recycle.
As I near the far end of the parking garage, I feel a little nervous, as I often do when walking alone by rows of cars at night. But I remind myself that my parents’ garage is surrounded by high walls, has a gatehouse at the entrance, and is watched over, day and night, by security personnel. Upon reaching my car, I unlock it with the remote, get in, and drive up and around to the doors of the lobby, where the pavement has been plowed and the sidewalk shoveled and salted. Ernie grips my dad’s arm and helps him into the back seat. The seat belts are a little tricky, and what with the darkness and my dad’s slow fingers, my parents can’t get my dad locked in. “Oh, forget it,” my dad says. “It’s only a mile from here. You’re not going to crash tonight, are you, Annie?”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
Then we are off, down the slushy, snow-rutted streets with more snow falling and my mom and dad and I arguing about what streets to turn on to reach the club. Ernie looks out at the bright towers of The Renaissance Center and the stone tigers of the new baseball stadium and keeps his opinions about how to get there to himself. But then, he doesn’t know Detroit like we do. He grew up outside South Bend, Indiana, where the roads ran between fields of beans and corn and mint and where you can still spot Amish buggies, and he’s only been a part of my life and my trips to Detroit for the past couple of years.
The tires of cars have sculpted the snow and slush on the city’s streets into waves. I drive in the troughs of the waves, the ruts of the slush, and turn left onto Gratiot. When my parents first moved to Detroit, a half century ago, my dad stopped several people to ask them where Gratiot is, using its original, French pronunciation: Grah-ti-oh. Finally the third person he stopped told my dad to spell the street’s name.
“Oh,” the man responded. “You mean Grass-shit. Grass-shit right over there.”
We turn right onto Brush, a street I lived near, a few miles north of here, for most of my childhood. We turn left onto Adams and pass Grand Circus Park, where I hung out as a teenager, taking the bus downtown, most of my lifetime ago. Next we turn right on Woodward, Detroit’s main street, which I traveled by foot, bike, bus and car thousands of times; left on Elizabeth; left again on Park; and then I pull as close as I can to Cliff Bell’s, stopping behind a car idling right outside the club’s door. Cliff Bell’s opened a little over a year ago, and my parents came here last Christmas, but Ernie and I have never seen the place till now. It’s on the left side of a one-way street, so my dad has to get out in the middle of the street rather than by the curb. Not that there is a serviceable curb—it’s buried under heaps of snow. But at least there is a shoveled space right in front of the club’s entrance.
Ernie gets out of the car and strides toward the club to locate the valet. I open my window and call him back. “Ernie!” He doesn’t seem to hear me. “Ernie!” I say again. My dad, who doesn’t like to ask for help, has pulled himself out of the back seat and is standing in the two-lane street, tentatively shuffling his feet as he tries to gain a firm footing in the slush. “Ernie!” I shout. Ernie turns around. “Come help my dad!” I call. “Take his arm!”
Ernie hurries back toward the car, and I keep my gaze on my dad, hoping he won’t fall, until his arm is interlocked with Ernie’s. My mom, who is almost as sure-footed as I am, is carefully making her way from the car’s other side through the waves of slush.
As I continue to watch the three of them, a man appears at my open window, says something about parking my car, and holds out his hand for my keys. I set the keys in his open palm. He opens my door, and I gingerly step out into the slushy street.
The valet is a head taller than me, about Ernie’s height. His brown skin is a shade lighter than his insulated coat, and he has a scruffy look about him, like the parking attendants who work the downtown lots. A skinny cigar, burned halfway down and no longer lit, sticks out from his chapped lips. He could be my age—just over fifty—or ten or fifteen years younger; smoking, cold weather and other rough elements having taken their toll. I glance past the valet to my father and am relieved to see that he has made it onto the cleared sidewalk. My mom also is standing where the pavement is cleared.
“It’s twenty dollars,” the valet says.
I return my gaze to his face. Freckles or age spots speckle the skin below his eyes. If I were there with just Ernie, I would say, Forget it, I’ll park it myself. But I don’t want to create a stir while out with my folks, especially since they are treating us to the rest of the evening, so I take out my wallet, pull out a twenty, and give it to the valet. I’ve looked past him again to Ernie, who is heading toward us, when the valet says, “You need to come with me.”
I glance around and then down at the man—when I looked away from him, he slipped behind the wheel of my car. “Why?” I ask.
“So I can give you the keys.”
I frown down at him, squinting. What the hell does he mean?
Ernie looms beside me.
“She needs to come with me,” the valet insists.
“Why?” I ask again, even more irritated and still confused.
“So I can show you where I parked it and give you the keys.”
What lousy valet service! Not really valet service—just crappy parking service. And how stupid does he think I am? No woman in her right mind would drive off into the night with some man she doesn’t know, not even in the little town I live in, let alone in Detroit.
“She needs to come with me,” the valet insists, gripping the steering wheel and looking out through the windshield, impatient to get going.
Still scowling, I turn to Ernie and say, “I’m not going with him—you go with him.”
“Okay,” Ernie says, obliging as always, and he walks around to the passenger door and gets in. I turn my back on them and navigate my way through the ridges of slush toward the club, wondering if I should complain to the management about the valet’s attitude and what he said to me. But when I step inside the door, the employee stationed there—a pasty young white man wearing a black suit and round, black hat with a narrow brim that makes me think of the Amish—is attending to other patrons. I look around, see where my parents are seated, and start toward them, still a little angry. As I pass the front window, I hear a horn blare and look out at the street and see my car. Is that my horn? I sometimes toot or honk but never lean on it, so I’m not sure what sound leaning on it would make. The valet’s cigar is still between his lips, and he looks angry. Beyond him, I barely make out Ernie in the far, front seat. The valet cuts sharply around the car in front of him, and then they are gone from the window’s frame.
My parents are sitting at a table up near the front of the three-quarters empty room. James Carter always draws a large crowd, so we’ve arrived an hour and a half early to make sure we secure good seats. I pull out a chair and sit down across from them. “They have terrible valet service here,” I say. “They make you ride with them, and then they give you your keys. So all they’re really offering is to show you where to park.”
“That’s not true valet service,” my mom says.
“And the guy was really rude to me—he kept ordering me to go with him. I finally said to Ernie, ‘You go, I’m not going.’”
My parents look back at me sadly but don’t respond. They are used to people finding fault with their city. Sometimes my parents defend Detroit, and other times they keep quiet.
I take off my coat and drape it on the back of my chair. Cliff Bell’s is a fancier place than I thought it would be—brass rails by the bar; classy, dark wood trim; low, elegant lighting. Each of the waitresses wears a different style of dress, all of them edgy and hip yet somehow sophisticated. The young black bouncer watching over the bar has on a blue and yellow silk jacket, and the young white man greeting patrons at the door, in addition to his black suit and round black hat, sports trendy, thin strips of dark beard along his jaw line and retro, thick-framed black glasses. Judging by the valet, I expected that Cliff Bell’s would be more of a dive.
“What would you like to drink?” my dad asks. “We should order wine for Ernie, right?”
“Chardonnay for Ernie,” I say. “I’ll just have water for now.”
A waitress stops to take our orders. As she speaks with my mom and dad, my thoughts return to the valet. Besides being rude, he was extremely unprofessional. An image returns to me, my last sight of the valet, his angry profile as he drove off with his skinny cigar clamped between his lips. A lot of people don’t like you to smoke in their cars, I think. The word unprofessional comes to mind again. Then the image returns, as vivid as a snapshot: the man’s angry face, and Ernie, in the dark beyond him, mostly obscured—more a sense of him than a sight. I couldn’t see Ernie well enough to tell if he was worried or frightened. I look up from the table and around the dark room with a disturbing thought: maybe the valet looked unprofessional because he wasn’t a professional. Even without the half-burnt cigar, he seemed kind of disheveled. What if he’s just some guy on the street, unconnected to Cliff Bell’s, out there scamming people or even robbing them? Ernie has been gone for ten or fifteen minutes. A lot could happen in that time. My car might be stolen; Ernie could be lying in the street somewhere. An even darker thought crosses my mind: my last, blurry sight of Ernie might be my last sight of him, ever.
“I’m wondering if that guy wasn’t really a valet,” I say to my parents. They stare back at me as if they don’t quite know what to say. Each time I visit them, they seem older and smaller. I explain my doubts and then say, “I’m going to find out if he was the valet or not,” and I stand and walk toward the man in the black suit and hat greeting patrons at the door.
I’ve taken only a few steps toward the front of the club when Ernie strides in through the door, obviously stirred up but seemingly unhurt. Towering above the manager, he points behind him at the street. I hurry toward Ernie, but slow down a few feet off, stopping outside the perimeter of his agitation.
“Your valet,” Ernie says, “your valet is doing an incredibly lousy job.”
The manager looks at Ernie blankly.
“Is that your valet out there?” Ernie demands.
The bouncer, whose muscles fill out his blue and yellow silk jacket, has sidled up next to the manager. He and the manager exchange hesitant looks. Then the manager speaks. “We have a valet. But he’s not here yet. He’s not due for another fifteen minutes.”
“Well, there’s someone out there parking cars for you and he nearly fucking killed me driving around the block.”
“There’s some guy out there claiming to be your valet and he’s crazy and he charged me twenty bucks. I got in the car with him, and he tore off down the street with his foot to the floor. Then he went racing down this alley, swerving all over the place, almost ramming a dumpster, just missing buildings and fences.”
“What does he look like?” the manager asks.
“He’s about my height and he’s scruffy with a cigar dangling from his mouth.”
I speak up from the edge of their circle. “He tried to make me go with him,” I say. “He kept saying, ‘She needs to go with me.’”
The manager looks at me, and his pale face darkens. “We’ll take care of him,” he says grimly, pulling on his coat. He isn’t nearly as tall as Ernie or the wannabe valet, and his hat, beard and glasses look a little goofy, but the determination in his voice and his youthfulness seem like they might make up for his lack of stature and his costume.
I return to my parents, and the manager and the bouncer walk outside with Ernie. Ten minutes later, Ernie comes back in and joins us at our table. “We found him,” Ernie says. “He was back out there, trying to park another car. The club guys tried to get the twenty back from him, but he insisted he didn’t have it. Started pulling bills out of his pockets, and all he came up with was seven dollars. They said it wasn’t legal for them to shake him down, so they called the police.”
“Are the police coming?” I ask.
“They’re out there right now.”
A waitress sets a glass in front of Ernie, and he picks it up and takes a slug. “I thought we were going to crash for sure—I thought there was no way we wouldn’t crash.” I rub Ernie’s thigh, and he pats my hand. “It happened so fast,” he says. Then he leans across the table to include my parents. “You should have seen this guy. First he floors it and tries to swerve into an alley, but he misses and plows right into a huge snowdrift. He keeps gunning the engine, as if he’s going to drive right through the drift. I tell him he has to put it in reverse, and he starts fumbling with the shift. ‘I don’t know how to work this thing,’ he says. So I pull it into reverse for him, and he starts spinning the wheels like crazy, burning down to the pavement. Finally, he manages to get unstuck from the drift. But then he blasts off down the alley, just missing this giant dumpster, almost hitting a row of garbage cans, fish-tailing back and forth between all these buildings and a half mile of chain link fence. I’m asking him, ‘Where are you going? What are you doing?’ And he keeps saying, as if it were obvious, ‘I’m taking you to your spot. I’ve got the perfect spot for you, man, all picked out.’
“Finally we shoot out of the alley, spin a three-sixty in the street, and then he punches the accelerator again, and we take off at sixty miles an hour and swerve again and fly across this empty parking lot and slide to a stop beside an empty parking booth.
“‘See?” he says. “Here it is. Your spot.’
“I say, ‘Yeah, thanks a lot, man,’ and I get out of the car.
“And he says, ‘Hey, man, don’t forget to pay me.’
“I say, ‘We already paid you,’ and he says, ‘No, you didn’t.’ I say, ‘We paid you twenty dollars,’ and he says, ‘You paid me, but you took it back. And it’s thirty dollars—see?’ And he points up at a sign above the parking booth that says: Parking—All Day—$30.
“I tell him he’s gotten his twenty and that’s already too much, and I start walking away. And he starts crying out in this pathetic voice, ‘Man, don’t leave me! Don’t leave me here! My knees, my knees—I can’t get out!’
“So I turn back around, and I notice that the man’s knees are jammed up under the steering wheel—when Annie got out of the car, she didn’t push back the seat. And he’s crying like a little kid, ‘Please don’t leave me here. Don’t leave me.’ So I walk back to him and push on the lever, and the seat glides back. And he gets out of the car and closes the door and says, ‘You still need to pay me, man.’
“I say, ‘You got your twenty dollars, and that’s all you’re getting.’
“And he starts whining, ‘She paid me, but you took it back! She paid me, but you took it back!’
“I just walked away. Meanwhile he’s shouting, ‘Don’t cheat me, man! Don’t lie to me! You owe me!’”
Ernie shakes his head and lifts his wineglass and takes another slug.
“What about my car?” I ask.
“It’s fine,” Ernie says. “Miraculously, not a scratch.”
“Does it need to be moved?”
“No, the lot it’s in is empty, closed for the night.”
“Are you sure it won’t get towed?”
“I showed the club guys where it is, and they say it’s fine.” He lifts his glass as if toasting the air. “I’m going to need another couple of these, though, to help me settle down.”
I slide my arm across Ernie’s broad back and lean my head against his arm, soaking up his warmth and solidity, reveling in his palpable presence while at the same time feeling guilty. “I feel so bad that I sent you off with that guy.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ernie says, as usual not wanting to make a fuss.
“He could have robbed you. He could have had a knife, or a gun.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s over with.”
Across the table from us, my parents have the same sad, troubled looks on their faces as when I complained to them a year ago. The expressway leading to downtown had been closed for repairs, so we had to take the city streets in, through mile after mile of rough neighborhoods, past abandoned, burned-out or simply crumbling houses and boarded-up storefronts, block after block where the only viable businesses were liquor stores and bars. Night had fallen, and shadowy men stood out in front of the bars, even though it was winter. A Hummer with tinted windows tailed us through a dozen traffic lights. Finally, it turned off onto a side street, but by then I wasn’t sure where we were anymore, and I’d started to panic. I’d been attacked by a mob of girls when I was growing up in Detroit, and even though that was decades ago and I escaped being badly hurt, the fear I felt at being knocked down and clawed at and dragged down the street still returns to me at times, in an instant. “Why do you still live in this place?” I asked my parents after we finally and safely arrived at their condo. “It makes me mad that in order to come see you, we have to risk our safety. If our car had broken down in one of those neighborhoods, we’d have been dead meat.” My mom and dad kept as quiet then as they are now. But as we sit at the table in Cliff Bell’s, I don’t say anything about Detroit being dangerous. I don’t want to make my parents feel any worse than they already do. And except for that one time, I’ve never complained about returning to my home city. Although my feelings about Detroit are definitely mixed, I still love coming back to visit.
Cliff Bell’s is offering a buffet, and after Ernie has soothed his nerves with a second glass of wine, we stand up and fill our plates with ribs, chicken, salad, and mac and cheese. A friend of my parents joins us, and Ernie tells him about his ride with the wannabe valet. Ernie’s story grows a little with the second telling—this time, instead of the car doing just one three-sixty spin, after exiting the alley, Ernie adds another full-circle spin, just before the car comes to a stop below the thirty-dollar-a-day parking sign. Once when I admonished Ernie for exaggerating—he told his mom that the snow in his yard was all the way up to our thighs when really it only reached to my calves—his middle son said, “Well, we all know the Dad exaggeration equation: divide by half.”
After we’ve eaten, I approach the manager. “Did you get my twenty back?” I ask him.
He shakes his round-hatted head. “Not yet. But we’re working on it.”
“Did you find out anything else?”
“Not so far—we turned the homeless guy over to the police.”
“Yeah, I believe so,” the manager says, trying to not look at me as if I am naïve.
“I thought he looked kind of disheveled for a valet,” I say.
“Did he say he was a valet?” the manager asks.
“I don’t remember. He said something about parking my car, and that it cost twenty dollars.”
The manager continues to look at me as if trying not to reveal what he thinks.
“I was trying to get my dad into the club, and things were kind of confusing, with all the snow in the street, so when this guy walked up to my window, I assumed he was your valet. I can’t remember if he said he was. He just asked for twenty dollars and my keys.”
The manager nods, trying unsuccessfully to hide his incredulity, not wanting to appear impolite. We stare at each other for a moment without speaking.
“Well, I grew up in Detroit,” I explain, “but I’ve lived out in the country for a long time.”
James Carter and Hot Club of Detroit start off their show with a rocketing blast, all of the quintet and Carter in sync and fired-up. It’s hard to believe it’s the first song of their first set—they sound as if they’ve been jamming all night. No wonder they call themselves Hot Club of Detroit, even though, except for the sax, what they play don’t seem like the hottest of instruments: two acoustic guitars, an upright bass, and a button accordion. James Carter stands at their center, playing sax also, his golden horn flashing as he bobs and sways. Carter is black—a deep, dark, pretty brown—and the Hot Club of Detroit are all various shades of white. Jazz musicians have always shared a kind of ease with each other, a colorblind understanding that is rare among the general public, and as the six of them play together, trading riffs, handing off solos, they are grinning and joking like a bunch of cousins at a family reunion. But I’m not feeling relaxed, and after that first song, I have trouble focusing on the music. I’ll be enjoying an incredible sax riff or an intricate guitar solo, and then my thoughts will return to the wannabe valet. I wonder if he would have tried to rape me if I had driven off with him. But maybe he simply figured that, since I’d been dumb enough to give him twenty dollars, he should be able to milk me for another ten.
Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I can see that the man looked homeless. But only potentially homeless—he didn’t have that filthy and severely disturbed look that the last stage of alcoholic or seriously mentally ill homeless have.
My adopted hometown of Saugatuck, where I’ve lived for thirty years, has hosted only one homeless man that I know of, a one-armed artist who lived in a tent by the river for several seasons before taking off for Colorado. But I’ve seen a lot of panhandlers and homeless people in Detroit, more and more over the years, at the Eastern Market and in Greektown, by the riverfront and on all the other streets around my parents’ condo. Sometimes I’ll give one a dollar or two, but more often I’ll look away from eyes so tired and worn, so filmed over or deranged, that it’s hard to meet let alone hold their gazes. This year as part of my Christmas present to my parents, instead of donating another sheep, pig or llama in their name to a family in a foreign country, I decided to give closer to home, and I wrote out a check to Detroit’s oldest soup kitchen. As I face the stage, tapping my feet, watching James Carter ease the mouth of his horn up to the mike and then draw slowly back, controlling horn, hands, lips and breath perfectly to milk out the sweetest notes, I wonder if the wannabe valet ever eats at that soup kitchen, if part of my money will provide him with a bowl of soup. I think of how he demanded I go with him, and I imagine taking the bowl from his hands and throwing it into his face. But that image dissolves as quickly as it appears. He didn’t hurt me, or Ernie, either, and even homeless scammers need to eat.
Last winter, in front of The Detroit Institute of Arts, a woman asked me for money. Ernie had stopped after we left the museum to take some close-up photos of the building. Sometimes I complain when Ernie turns a brisk walk or vacation outing into a photo expedition, but that day I paced up and down the sidewalk to pass the time while he crept close to the building’s perimeter and angled and shot. I’d walked up and down the block three times when a woman approached me from behind and off to my right. “Miss,” she called softly. “Miss—I need your help.”
I turned toward her and stopped.
“I know what I need to do,” the woman says, “but I need your help.”
“What kind of help do you need?” I asked, looking at her as closely as I’d just stared at Van Gogh’s portraits. Her skin was very dark, and she was built small, like me. She was also like me in that she wore no makeup and her clothes were extremely casual: faded jeans, a worn green coat (mine is black) and scuffed leather athletic shoes. The main difference in our dress was that she had no hat or gloves. She looked just barely enough disheveled to be a panhandler or homeless. But not necessarily.
“I need to get to the battered women’s shelter,” she said. “I know where it is, and I know how to get there, but I need five dollars for bus fare for my children and me. It’s a dollar fifty for me, plus three more for my children.”
I looked into her dark face, into her eyes. I’ve never been good at telling if a person is drunk or high.
As I stared at her face, she said, “See these bruises?” She traced her skin just below both eyes. It was slightly darker there, but whether from bruises or from lack of sleep or other hard luck, it wasn’t clear.
I was volunteering two nights a month at that time for a domestic abuse crisis line and had heard plenty of stories of women who were abused and not believed. I reached into my coat pocket, pulled out my wallet, opened it up. All I had was two singles and two twenties. As I started to pull out a twenty, her eyes flickered. I paused, looking beyond her, up the street. “Where are your children?” I asked. It was a weekday, and all I could see were college students and other adults.
“I left them at the library,” she said. “They’re waiting there for me.”
I hesitated another second. Then I slipped out the bill and held it out to her. She took it, said, “Oh, thank you,” and turned away. The woman started strolling up the street toward the corner, walking more slowly, it seemed, than someone in a hurry to get back to her children and transport them and herself to safety. Either she couldn’t believe her good luck and was walking in a half-dazed way to reach her children, or she couldn’t believe her good luck and was trying to decide whether to buy wine or heroin, or some of each.
I would rather chance wasting twenty dollars on an addict than turn my back on a battered woman, yet I still wanted to know whether or not I had been fooled, so when Ernie rejoined me, I told him what had just happened and asked if he thought she was telling the truth.
“From what you’ve said, I can’t tell.”
“Well, what do you think the chances are that she was telling the truth?” I pressed.
“I’d say about fifty-fifty.”
I wondered if Ernie was lying just to be nice. “Are you saying fifty-fifty just to make me feel better?” I asked him.
He frowned. “I don’t know, Annie. It’s impossible to say.”
“It’s impossible to say whether she was telling the truth, or whether you are?”
He smiled and said, “Both.”
A few days before this, in one of our rare arguments, Ernie had complained about what he calls my obsession with the truth. He had asked me to meet him early for dinner and then had kept me waiting for a half hour, and we were in disagreement about the surrounding facts. Finally I had said, “I just want you to admit that you were wrong.”
He had answered, “I wasn’t wrong, I was late. And why is it important?”
“Because I like to get the facts straight.”
“Jesus, you’re supposed to be a fiction writer.”
“And you’re supposed to be a photographer! The most true-to-life type of art.”
“What are you talking about?” he had said. “Photography is the greatest fiction there is! It’s all about angles and lighting and tricks.”
“Well, fiction is mainly about telling the truth.”
“Why does one person have to be right?” Ernie had asked. “What if both of us are right? What if both of us are wrong?”
I had kept quiet, pondering what might be the right and truthful answers to his questions.
James Carter and Hot Club of Detroit finish their first set with “Summertime,” despite, or perhaps to spite, all the snow piled up outside. The acoustic guitars and the accordion, which make me think of a campfire, cause the song to sound like a cross between “Summertime” and “Home on the Range.” It is an odd yet pleasant hybrid.
After it’s over, we stand up to leave. I tell Ernie that I want the real valet, the club’s valet, to retrieve our car for us. “We’ve had enough bother,” Ernie says, pulling on his coat. “I’ll get it. It’s just around the corner from here.”
“But what if that guy is out there? He could be waiting at our car, mad at us because we called the police on him.”
“He won’t be out there,” Ernie says. “The police hauled him off.”
“They did? Are you sure?”
“Yes. I saw them put the handcuffs on.”
“Oh. Well, I’m going with you. I’m walking with you to get the car.”
“Okay,” Ernie says. I don’t want to let him out of my sight. If someone else tries to take him for a ride, they’ll have to deal with me, too. Even though I’m small, I can be fierce, and I might be of some help.
On the way out the door, I ask the manager, “Did you get my twenty back?”
“No,” he says. “We weren’t able to. Sorry.”
“Well, what about the seven dollars you got from him?” I ask. “Can you give me that?”
The manager ducks his round-hatted head and shifts his eyes away. “He said the seven dollars was his own money, so we gave it back to him.”
“You gave it back to him?”
“Yes. He said it was his.” He glances at me again. “We told him we’d give him back his seven if he gave us the twenty.” He lowers his voice. “And then he wouldn’t give us the twenty.”
I look at him as he looked at me earlier in the evening, when I told him I’ve lived out in the country for a long time.
Holding hands, Ernie and I make our way down the snowy, slushy street. I’m still a little worried that something bad might happen before we reach my car. After all, we are walking in Detroit at night, and if we could run into trouble once, why not twice? That I’m alert now to possible danger isn’t much solace. Whenever I’ve made a dumb move, afterwards I always reassure myself that I won’t make that mistake again. Next time I won’t hand my keys over to some scruffy stranger, or send the love of my life off into the night with a madman. But the problem with this reasoning is that the next time is always different.
Rounding a corner, I see my car, the only car in the lot, lined up at surprisingly right angles to the street and looking reassuringly fine, whole and unmolested despite its brief, wild spin. Overhead is the sign Ernie mentioned: Parking—All Day—$30.
I click the remote to unlock the car and open the driver’s door. As I’m about to step in, I notice, on the driver’s seat, a folded-up bill. “Ernie,” I call. “Come here—look at this.”
Ernie cozies up to my side. I point down at the bill. “Look what I found. Lying right there.”
Ernie reaches in, picks up the bill and unfolds it. It’s a twenty. “So he was telling the truth,” Ernie says.
“Well, part of the truth,” Ernie says.
He hands me the bill, and I slip it into my pocket. Then Ernie says, “Damn!”
I glance around us, alert, but all I see are the still, city streets, empty except for the waves of snow and slush. “What?” I ask.
“I should have taken a photo of him! I had my camera in my coat pocket the whole time.”
We pick up my parents at the door of the club, and then Ernie has me stop the car at the alley he was taken down, and he gets out and takes some pictures of the ruts carved in the snow as my car veered toward a massive metal dumpster, angling away just in time, cutting more curves as it fish-tailed up the alley. I peer as far as I can up the dark, snowy corridor, trying to see to the alley’s far end; I’m attempting to discern the marks of a three-sixty spin, but it’s too dark and distant to tell what’s there and what isn’t.
On the drive home, the four of us are laughing, light-hearted. The whole night has tipped from potential and averted disaster to a comedy of errors. “Look at it this way,” my mom says. “You got a thirty-dollar parking spot for free.” Then she tells a story about my sister, who lives in a suburb just outside Detroit and is regularly approached by homeless men on her trips into the city. Nicole has taken to giving them whatever food she has in her car. When a homeless man approaches her window at a red light, she’ll grab whatever she has—candy, crackers, cookies—roll down the window, and say, “Here.”
Recently, Nicole and her husband were returning home from our parents’ condo with two loaves of German stollen that my mom had made for Nicole’s husband’s family. Nicole grabbed up one of the round loaves from the backseat as a homeless man approached.
“You can’t give that away,” her husband said. “It’s a Christmas present. Not your Christmas present.”
Nicole rolled down her window, held out the bread, and said, “Here.”
The man looked down at the foil-covered round loaf that Nicole thrust into his hands. “What is it?” he asked.
“It’s stollen,” Nicole said.
“It’s stolen?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Nicole said. “Take it. It’s for you.”
Looking stricken, the man backed off from the car window holding the loaf on his open hands as if it might be a bomb.
We laugh at this story, and then we laugh some more at the events of the evening. But as I look out at the lights of downtown, at the radiant glow of The Renaissance Center and the flashing neon of Greektown, my thoughts darken. I see the homeless man, our valet, being questioned at the station, insisting to the police that he isn’t telling a story, that he doesn’t have the twenty and he hasn’t stashed it anywhere. I know that they don’t believe him, and I am hoping they haven’t beaten him, trying to get at the truth.