“Aunt Marge. That you up there on the porch?”
Quickly raising the car window against the spew of cold air, Jerzy Fields looked around warily, then parked on the street. Her aunt’s driveway was more mud and potholes than asphalt, and she’d wrecked at least one pair of shoes and a tire parking there. Auntie had stopped driving last year so there was little reason to attend to it.
“Who else?” Marge said, her voice muffled by the Happy Meal binoculars held up to her eyes. Pointing the glasses at her niece as she came up the walk, she said. “You gettin old, girl. Look more like your mama every day. Add a little more coffee to the cream and I’m lookin’ at my sister.”
Seated on a balding raffia chair, Aunt Marge was wearing a raggedy, elbow-less lilac sweater and a faded Tigers baseball cap. The curly auburn wig under the hat was slightly askew, giving her a loopy look. The electric heater sitting on the porch rail shone orange-its cord pulled tight through an open window.
“What are you doin’ out here on the porch on a cold day like this?” Jerzy said. “Can’t be no more than forty degrees.” She shivered to illustrate.
“Watchin’ for those boys,” Marge answered, training her eyes on the street again. “Saw ‘em come by before I was even done with my Sugar Pops. Drove by a second time when I was fixin’ up this heater.” She nodded toward the orange glow. “They up to no good. Uh huh.”
“Those boys been harassin’ you, Auntie?” Jerzy stamped her feet, trying to warm up.
Marge shook her head. “They jus’ doin’ what they do, which is no-good trashy ghetto stuff. Driving too slow to be passing through. They lookin’ for something all right.” Several clucking sounds followed this observation. “Not sure what yet.”
A baseball bat sat next to her chair. There was also an old cot with a broken leg propped up against the porch railing, and a rusty old grill with a layer of mummified charcoal from who knew when.
“Planning on livin’ out here?” Jerzy said, examining the cord. “Look here, this cord is frayed, Auntie. You gonna set your house on fire.”
“Better get me a new one then, Jerzy. If I don’t watch the street, who will?”
There were only six houses on a street that once held twenty. So why the interest from these boys in a car, Jerzy wondered? Was one of the houses selling crack? And she’d seen some skanky girls ’round the corner on John R just now. Looked like a ho stroll was in progress with their uniforms of high heels, short skirts, bare midriffs, dirty fur jackets.
Jerzy was abruptly overtaken by the desire to have both a cigarette and a drink. It came over her lightning quick sometimes. She’d sworn off both years ago, but the old lady sitting in front of her in her broken-down house on this God-forsaken street brought back that craving-the itch only certain things could scratch. Bad things. She steeled herself by thinking about how much money such weaknesses took from a pocket. And ‘the human cost’ as they called it at the meetings. Maybe it was time to go to one.
Girding herself, she said, “Look, Auntie. I’m gonna check things out inside the house while I’m here. See what needs doin’. Make me a list.” Jerzy had about a dozen other things to do on her day off, but this one took priority. There was no one else to see to Aunt Marge since Jerzy’s mother died.
Marge nodded slightly and continued watching the street. Good Lord, her teeth weren’t in her mouth, and Jerzy hoped she hadn’t lost or broken the plate. Medicare didn’t give a good god-damn about your teeth after a point.
Inside, the house was neat enough but nearly as cold as outside. The half-eaten bowl of Corn Pops sat on the kitchen table next to a cup of half-drunk coffee. Thankfully, Auntie’s dentures sat there too, looking ready to take on the cereal. Jerzy rinsed out all three items, and then made the bed. She pushed a blanket up against the crack in the window, but fixing it would have to wait. A basket of clothes sat at the bottom of the bed. Auntie appeared to be out of toilet paper, and the food in the fridge seemed past the sell-by date. She tossed a few of the worst offenders into a garbage bag, setting it by the door.
Next she checked the thermostat. Set at eighty degrees but reading fifty, the furnace must be broken. Downstairs in the cellar, the octopus looked to be eighty years old, occupying most of the room. Water puddled in two spots on the concrete floor. The water heater might be broken or perhaps it was the ancient washer a few feet away that explained the unwashed clothes. How much would a new furnace and water heater cost? Auntie was looking at several thousand dollars to set things right.
She climbed the stairs, going back outside. “You got a furnace man, Aunt Marge? Your house is fairly freezin’.”
Her aunt screwed up her face. “Thought it seemed a bit brisk. Well, just call up Detroit Edison. They’ll fire it up.”
“It’s called DTE now, Auntie. And I don’t think they can fix it. You probably need a new one.” She picked up her aunt’s hand when she didn’t answer. Pure ice. She made a quick decision. “Better come along home with me. We’ll call us some help from my house. Get you nice and warmed up.”
“You know I can’t do that, girl. Who’ll watch the street?”
Her aunt’s head continued to swivel back and forth, her lips set. Jerzy wanted that drink more than ever as she pulled her aunt to her feet. Two fingers of Jim Beam on the rocks would put some backbone into her. Did Marge’s eyes look funny? Her mother died from Alzheimer’s five years back. Did Aunt Marge have it now too? Did it run in families or just plain run?
“Be easy, Auntie. I’ll get someone over here lickety-split. You’ll be home in a day or two. Soon as we get some of this stuff sorted out.”
“Still got that cable television over at your house? Channel with all those movies?”
Jerzy nodded. Auntie’s unwillingness to leave her watch on the porch suddenly vanished, and the two women went inside to pack an overnight bag.
“Think I need my Sunday dress?” Marge asked, headed for the closet. Her mood had picked up now that a vacation was in the offing. She shuffled through the wire hangers, pausing to remove a few items. “Like me in this?” she said, holding up a Red Wings jersey she’d found at a flea market last year. “‘Bout the warmest thing, I got.”
Jerzy grabbed it and threw it in the bag. Sunday was five days from now. James would go Nam on her if Auntie stayed with them more than a night or two. He didn’t like outsiders in his house. Something about using his precious commode, no doubt.
“I want a direct shot when I need it,” he had told her countless times. “Don’t need to be findin’ some stranger lockin’ my doors.” Jerzy was lucky he let her share it.
“I’ll come back and get you a dress if you need one.”
A lady from the Jesus Tabernacle congregation picked Marge up every Sunday. Ladies in bright flowered dresses filling every pew with the rare rooster crowing his bass. Only black women wore hats to church nowadays, Jerzy thought, noticing several sitting on the closet shelf. Peacock colors. She had kept two of her mother’s.
As they pulled away from the curb, Marge looked back at the house. The binoculars still hung from her neck but she’d forgotten about them. “All by myself,” she said. “That’s how I always done it.”
Jerzy reached over and patted her knee.
Marge had come to Detroit from Alabama in 1959, working off and on in upholstery installation at automobile plants for 40 years. Never married, never had kids. Made a decent living when she wasn’t laid off and bought her house on Robichaud Street when the neighborhood was still respectable. Neat houses with mowed lawns, a porch on each one. Marge’s sister, Mildred-Jerzy’s mother-was her only kin in Michigan. Now Jerzy and Jerzy’s brother, Rufus, were it. And Rufus was hardcore. Not even good for lickin a stamp.
James was standing in the doorway when they pulled up, the mail in his hands. He looked at the two of them as if he’d never seen them before, his lips a grim line. Shaking his head, he turned and went inside his house, sitting down on the corduroy ottoman to lace his boots. James worked for the city, spending most of his time in the city’s sewers. The city called him an engineer but he was really a handyman, trying to keep those ancient pipes from leaking, holding back the flood. He’d probably circled Detroit with duct tape ten times over.
“What’s this all about?” he asked now, eyeing Marge with something close to repugnance. “Why we havin company on a Tuesday?” He’d never much cared for Marge, who kowtowed to no man. James liked his women docile whenever possible.
“Auntie’s furnace is broke,” Jerzy told him, ushering the old woman past him and onto a seat. The woman sank down, sighing loudly. “She’ll just be with us a few days,” she told him in a low voice. “Think you got time to take a look at it?”
He shook his head. “Already late. And I don’t know a damn thing about furnaces.” He looked over at Marge, who was dozing already. “You aiming to be a nursemaid, Jerzy? Looks like that’s what she needs. You best start thinkin’ about the future. What you’re gonna do with her.”
“Just for a few days,” she repeated. “I hadda drag her out here. She’ll be beggin’ to go home by tomorrow.”
James rolled his eyes. “Tell me that on Saturday.”
Proving James right, Aunt Marge had a head cold the next morning. A run on furnace repairs due to the early cold weather kept her house too chilly to return to.
“A day or two,” the woman at Friendly Furnace told Jerzy.
“Just stay here and rest yourself,” Jerzy said, handing Marge a cup of bouillon. She hadn’t even known they still made those cubes until Marge sent her out for some. And they’d been sitting in the store a while, she thought, as she struggled to remove the foil from it.
“Only thing tastes good on a cold,” Marge said, watching. “Don’t care much if it’s beef or chicken, but no vegetable ones, please.” She made a face.
“Feelin’ wack, are you?” Jerzy asked, noticing the pile of tissues piling up and wondering if she needed some latex gloves. Picking the pile up with another tissue, she put them in the trash can.
“Why you gotta use that ghetto talk?” her aunt asked. “So hard to say sick like a civilized person?”
“Are you feeling sick?” Jerzy said, biting her tongue.
Her aunt nodded. “But I better get over to my house anyway. Can’t stop thinkin’ â€˜bout those boys ridin’ around like they was. Can’t be a good thing-no neighborhood watch on my street.”
“I’ll look in on my way into work. You be okay here alone?”
“Always has been.” Marge smiled. “And I got me that good movie channel now.”
At first, Jerzy thought a fire had ravaged her aunt’s house because she barely recognized it as she pulled up to the curb. The decorative iron door on the front was missing as were the bars on the windows. In fact, the window panes themselves were gone. The rain gutters had been removed along with the blue aluminum siding. The metal fence that enclosed the property had been ripped from the ground, leaving nasty flakes of metal sprayed across the lawn like sparks from a fire. Auntie’s little red bible lay on the grass, its pages fluttering crazily in the stiff wind. Jerzy picked it up and stuck it in her purse. Piles of goods lay everywhere; she picked her way through trying not to burst into tears.
Inside the house, anything useful to the culprits had vanished, and the rest of it was destroyed. If she didn’t know her aunt’s sweetness, Jerzy’d swear it was a grudge crime. Every article of clothing lay on the floor. Every can of food had been tossed. The bedroom was impassable, and pieces of paper, bills probably, were blowing out the empty windows. There was not a single item that hadn’t been stolen, tossed, or vandalized. Even the electric meter was missing from the wall. When she tried to turn a lamp on, she realized the bulbs had been unscrewed. A few lamps were even missing their finials.
Jerzy sank into the one upright chair, caught her breath, grabbed the cell from her pocket, and dialed 911. Two hours went by before a squad car pulled up. Two hours when she’d scarcely moved. She’d started to call James, her brother, Rufus, a friend, but coming up with the words she’d use to describe the house’s state was too much.
When the squad car pulled up, she started to protest the long wait. “Look, Ma’am,” the cop said patiently, “priority goes to crimes in progress. This one’s ’bout over.” He looked around. “Long over. Scrapped her place but good.” He almost seemed to admire the thoroughness of the job.
“Scrapped?” She’d heard the word before but couldn’t put a meaning on it.
“Scrappers come by and take anything they can sell. Metal stuff mostly,” he added. “That’s why they didn’t bother with the food or clothes. Every empty or foreclosed house in the city is scrapped sooner or later ‘less you put a guard on it.”
She knew this-but it was something that happened to other people. Not Aunt Marge.
“This wasn’t no empty house, Officer. Only been a day. One day!”
“Means nothing to the people did this. You think we’re talking about human beings with a soul? Empty is empty to them.” He walked around, taking an inventory of what was clearly missing. “She have insurance?”
Jerzy didn’t know.
“Probably not. It’s hard to get insurance in this neighborhood.”
Something else struck her then. “I bet they took all her cards. You know, social security, health, I.D, driver’s license, bank card. Maybe they buried out there.” She waved a hand toward the heap of trash covering the lawn. “How will I get her some money? How will she prove she’s Marge Lennox?”
“We got people who can tell you ’bout that. Victim’s rights.” He handed her a card. “If they haven’t cut those jobs yet. City’s broke case you didn’t know it.”
The cops wanted to talk to her aunt right away.
“In a day or two,” she promised.
A day later, Marge sat on a milk crate in her front yard. “Must be some stranger’s house. “Don’t know nothin’ about it. I’ll tell you this though. I’m not going in there.”
James stood next to her, scratching his head. “You need to start making a list, Marge.” He turned to Jerzy. “Maybe we can hire someone to put things right.”
“It looks different ’cause they took down the sidin, Auntie,” Jerzy explained, ignoring him. “They took anything they could sell to a scrap yard. That’s what the policeman said.”
“Not even one window left. Couldn’t they use the door?”
“They sell glass too.”
“Damn, those are nasty people.” Tears were falling now.
“Maybe they needed money to buy food.” This didn’t sound convincing even to Jerzy.
“Now they got what they need, they won’t be back,” James said. “Nothing to worry yourself about. You’ll be home in a few days.”
That was all he could think about, Jerzy thought with disgust.
“Those boys weren’t homeless. I saw their big-assed car cruisin’ this street. Saw the fancy jackets they had on. Gang jackets, I think.” She looked at Jerzy. “I told you I hadda watch the street.” She wiped her face with her sleeve. James and Jerzy helped her to the car.
Over the next few days, Marge steadfastly refused to enter the house, continuing to deny it was hers. “I would never paint my house that hinky yellah.”
“The blue siding covered that yellow paint,” Jerzy argued weakly. “Maybe from a time before you even bought the house.
“She needs to file a report,” the cop said when she dialed his cell.
“A report means you think you can find her missin’ stuff then, huh?” she asked him. “Gonna pour all your resources into a search for those scrappers.” He didn’t answer her.
A few days later, Jerzy came home from work to an empty house. In the morning, she hadn’t been able to get Auntie out of bed, but now she was gone. Also missing was her lilac sweater and the Tigers’s cap. It wasn’t even 30 degrees outside and Jerzy wondered if she still had her pajamas on under the sweater. Dear Lord.
“Where you think she is?” she asked James over the phone. “She don’t know this neighborhood for beans.”
“She got a screw missin’,” he said. “Can’t take care of herself and this seals it. She has to go into a home. Like your mama,” he added.
Jerzy drove back and forth to Robichaud Street for hours. She called the police around two and social service at three. Neither seemed overly interested in sending out a car until more time had passed. James, on his part, continued wrapping his tape around city sewers.
At first, she didn’t see her aunt sitting on the porch since it was nearly dusk. Marge’d dragged the milk carton up from the front lawn and her head could barely be seen from the street.
“Them jokers did a job on my house,” she told Jerzy after her niece climbed the steps. “Took a hack saw to the furnace, but it was too tough for ‘em.” She nodded with satisfaction. “That old boiler put up a fight.”
“Aren’t you freezin’ out here?” Jerzy asked, looking for something to throw over her. “Where you been all day, Auntie? I almost had the cops after you.”
“I hadda take a bus over here. And I got all scrambled ’bout which one. Routes have changed since my day.” She shrugged. “Bus was nice and warm though. Think I went back and forth a few times.” She stood up. “Let’s get me home. I’m done with 423 Robichaud. I just sat my own-what they call it-wake. ”
James would just have to tolerate a visitor for a few more days, Jerzy thought. They could hardly throw the woman out on the street, and it was unclear what social services could do for them. There was no reason Auntie couldn’t live with them except for James’ stubbornness. She wasn’t nearly as addled as Mama had been.
As they drove down the street, Marge let out a scream. Jerzy slammed on the brakes.
“Lookity right there, Jerzy. That brother is usin’ my iron door for a table.”
Jerzy saw it too. A barbecue grill smoking meat stood right behind it. The door had been fitted with a piece of glass to make a table.”Probably my window glass too. I am decoratin’ homes across the hood. Never thought I’d see such a thing in this world.” Auntie was almost laughing. Then she was crying again.
“These people are too mean to live. What they call it-scrappin’. I’d like to take them to the junkyard.” She paused. “I never want to see this street again.”
“We’ll find you a new place, Auntie. You have money in the bank. We just need to get to it.”
“No, I’m leavin’ this city, girl. Going back to Alabama. Can’t be worse there. I got a cousin will take me in when I got my monies straightened out.”
“Can’t she stay with us, James?” Jerzy begged him that night. “She’s no trouble at all.”
“Your mama stayed here for months before she went to that home-don’t you remember it. Calling me Horace and tryin’ to hold my hand.” He shivered. “Then it was your junkie brother trying to kick the habit. Ha! Bringin’ all kinds of people to my stoop, sittin’ in this very room with those goddamned forties in his lap.” He grimaced. “A man needs some privacy, Jerzy. She don’t wanna stay here anyhow. Let her put this behind.”
It fell into place surprisingly quickly once Jerzy gained access to her aunt’s accounts. Within a month, they were standing at the Greyhound Bus Station on Howard Street, Marge having refused to fly. “Too old to learn that trick now.”
“I’ll send the rest of your stuff down there next week,” Jerzy promised as the man lifted her aunt’s two grippes into the baggage hold. Not that there was much salvageable from Robichaud Street.
“Just you, Ma’am,” the driver asked Marge, turning around.
“All by myself,” Marge told him with a trace of the old pride in her voice.
“She transfers to the Birmingham bus in Nashville,” Jerzy told him, handing the ticket over.
“I know that, girl,” Marge said. “Make the trip every couple years, don’t I?
On the ride back home, a helicopter loomed over the freeway, almost causing Jerzy to steer into a Hondo Accord. The helicopter pulled a sign saying “Moby’s Scrapyard in Hamtramck. Best prices in town.”
Might as well pull a second sign with the addresses of ladies away for the night.