(An excerpt from Chapter 2)
It’s July. The heat’s been unbearable. All the movie theatres are jammed with people trying to stay cool. Patrons are asleep in the worn velvet seats of the Royal Theater watching the same movie, The Graduate, for the second or third time that day. Jack Easton and his young wife, Penelope, slump in their seats. Her head rests on his shoulder. Nothing worse than being pregnant in July, in the heat, 1967 and you’re twenty-one years old. Jack wakes as the credits roll. “Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you could know, oh oh oh.”
“C’mon hon, wake up.” He strokes her damp hair. “Time to get some chow. Head back home. Gotta work tomorrow.” She lifts herself up, belly first. Sweat has formed under the elastic panel stretched tight on the front of her maternity shorts. She waddles out to the lobby, stopping in the restroom. Jack leans against a lobby wall.
He cracks his knuckles from boredom while he waits. This life he’s fallen into surprises him.
They stagger into the late afternoon air, clogged with exhaust fumes, with heat radiating up from the pavement as it spreads in all directions. Something else makes them catch their breath. Smoke. Something that ought not to be burning. An electric frying in the air. The sort of sizzle that makes the hair on the back of the neck rise. Jack pulls Penelope close to him. He can’t offer her a mansion with air conditioning but he offers her protection. For this time, for this moment. As they turn the corner south and head to the parking lot, they see the smoke. Black clouds billowing. Not far, not too close. Maybe a few miles away.
“Looks like the god damn city’s burning. Let’s get out of here.” He opens the door of his powder blue’63 push button Dodge Dart for her, keeping one eye on the horizon.
The smoke roils and thick dark clouds rise into the sky as if blasting out of some giant furnace at some giant auto plant where they are pouring molten steel. He knows it means something bad. The city has been on edge all summer. Murmurs of racial unrest, along with anti-war demonstrations. Nervous cops, looking to clamp down hard on something, anything, to stop the pressure rising with whatever force they can muster. Horses. Blackjacks. Breaking up the summer crowds whenever they gather.
They head west on Seven Mile Road to their home in a blue-collar neighborhood with row after row of clapboard and aluminum sided bungalows. Most all of the houses are well maintained. A few of the side streets are still dirt gravel roads as if they lived out in the country. Children play in the streets and in the few remaining vacant lots. This is the last moment before iron grated doors and barred windows appear, and For Sale signs sprout on every other lawn. And the children vanish. This is the hour the most racially divided city in the country implodes. Sucks in its breath. A fire-breathing dragon inhaling, about to blow. Jack and Penelope feel this but don’t know yet what it is that’s about to come.
They pull up to the curb and park alongside a cottonwood tree that blows white fluffs everywhere in the early summer, clogging the gutters and coating the lawn like a late snowfall. No trace of that now. Penelope hoists herself out of the car and waits for Jack. Very few of the homes have garages or even driveways. Cars line the block. The cars are a variety of models and years, but all American. It’s dangerous to drive a foreign car here. A Jap car might get egged, or stoned. A driver would have to keep his doors locked tight. And be immune to the shouts. “Buy American, you ass-hole.” Almost everyone has some relative that works on the line.
Jack takes her arm and guides her up the front walk and inside. Some of the furniture is handmade. An old door turned upside down, with black metal legs attached, functions as a coffee table. A second-hand dining room table has three mismatched chairs. A Mexican wool rug, burgundy with a zigzag lime green pattern covers the floor. Its fringe has been chewed off – maybe from the vacuum cleaner or from one of the many stray dogs that have passed through their home. Jack cannot tolerate any of them for long.
He pulls her close to him, smells her hair - rosemary and mint - and keeps going, unbuttoning her blouse, unfastening her bra. Her breasts are swollen and pour out into his hands, filling them. Her nipples, usually small and taunt, have spread out. Dark plums. Exotic fruit. Sweat trickles down her neck and chest, making her skin glisten. He eases her to the floor, onto the rug. “Wait,” he says. “Don’t move.” He steps over to the front window, draws the curtain, then turns on an oscillating fan that sits on the table. He makes love to her gently, trying not to disturb their child waiting to be born.
Afterwards, he’s glad they made love before turning on the small black and white TV perched on an empty wood crate to watch the second game of the Tigers-Yankees double header. They sit dazed before the screen as newscast after newscast confirms what they suspected. The city is in an uproar. The Detroit police broke up a blind pig, a GI welcome home from Vietnam party late Saturday night, or early Sunday morning, depending on your lifestyle. White policemen subduing black men. In the days to come, the raid is described as using excessive force. The National Guard is called. And rage overflows.
Samantha is born a month later. By that time Jack has purchased a handgun, for protection, at the urging of his friends and neighbors. An invasion is coming they insist. And the color of one’s skin is all that will matter.