Sunday Stories: “Julia’s Detroit”

Detroit image

Julia’s Detroit
by Nicholas Rombes

Somehow, it was Julia’s Detroit. It seemed it always had been.

I’d been sent to Detroit to save someone, although in the end it was me who needed saving.

Maybe it was because I only understood the city through the filter of her stories and the byways of their telling. It was her eyes, after all, that showed me what to look at, what to ignore.

The gathering night collecting in the geometried patches in the corners of Fletcher’s Bar made it seem, for a while, as if we were in some sort of extended cut of a documentary that suddenly reversed course and became a surrealist film. The single window glowed orange from the late, fading sun. The wooden floor was buckled in a way that suggested a fault line that ran from one end to the other.

The dented metal door swung open.

Of its own accord, it seemed, and a kid on a silver Schwinn with Day-Glo spokes popped a wheelie on the sidewalk outside, then came back and did it again. Charlotte, who’d sent me, had warned me about little events like this—kids on bikes, the power cutting out briefly, phones ringing in the night but not sounding exactly right. She’d told me I’d need to be alert for repetition, for patterns, for clues that hinted at a larger structure. 

The door swung closed.

Paul, the so-called bartender, an enormous man in a white cotton shirt, was struggling to balance the pinball machine, and I offered to help hold it up as he unscrewed one of the legs to lengthen it. His own legs were so long. His blond Gordian ponytail that must have been decades in the making.

Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom: The Pinball Adventure

“Of the 12 modes, the Steal the Stones one is the hardest,” he said, using a level, and then further readjusting the leg, “and within that, Survive the Rope Bridge is the most difficult. If you complete all 12 modes, which practically no one does,” he said, wiping his brow, “you get six balls at once.” 

The phone behind the bar rang again and Paul asked Julia to answer it. 

How old was Julia? She could have been 70 or she could have been 30. She wore that soft black beret she said had been a gift from Dudley Randall who’d gotten it from Stokely Carmichael and her pierced eyebrow quivered a little when she talked. 

The phone was mounted on the wall, a red rotary phone although it had a modern, digital ringtone and by the time Julia got there it had stopped ringing. But then it started again and she picked up, took off an earring and pressed the receiver to her ear, listened, and then held the handset to her chest. 

“They want to know how late you’re open,” she said to Paul.

“All night,” he said, turning his attention back to the pinball machine.

When she’d returned to our table he asked her if they had said who they were.

“It was a man.”

“Did it sound like he was calling from inside or outside?”

“What do you mean?”

“Were there outside noises?” Paul asked.

“To be honest,” she said, “it sounded like he was calling from nowhere. There was a void surrounding his voice. He might as well have been in a desert.”

A look of concern came over Paul’s face and he took his place back behind the bar, stretching his long arms above his head until his fingers touched the blackened tin ceiling. 

I felt unstable, inexact. 

The feeling reminded me of an experience I had as a child, a traumatic experience although it sounds absurd to use that word all these years later. I’d gone to the museum in Toledo for a school field trip—it must have been elementary school—and in one of the cool, darkened rooms I found myself standing in front of a Renaissance painting. It depicted an angel, in human form, walking through a doorway. It was by Bellini, I remember that, and the painting was titled either The Annunciation Angel or The Angel of Annunciation. I couldn’t tell if the angel was male or female—I think in my mind at that age I believed it was both, at the same time, which for some reason seemed perfectly natural to me. What transfixed me, what horrified me, was the dress or robe or whatever it was the angel was wearing, the way it hung on him/her more like crumpled or folded metal than fabric, like origami, a chaos of geometry that seemed impossible. 

I won’t say the painting moved, but if felt like it moved, like the sharply creased folds shifted angles slightly, revealing light where there had been shadow and I remember feeling a little sick or nauseated like the feeling I’d get reading in the car or the time I’d seen the black flies on the bloated carp in the Maumee River. Objectively it was just a painting, a beautiful painting, and yet standing there alone in that room (for I felt like I was alone not only in that room but in the universe) it was as if the painting had just been completed and that if I reached out and touched it the oils would still be wet, or worse that it was not yet complete and that the movement I’d thought I’d seen was Bellini’s own invisible hand, across time, making small changes to the painting. 

That’s how I felt when the phone rang and Julia said what she said about the void. 

Paul would be dead within a day, but not by my hand.

Who was I was supposed to “save” by delivering the message I had brought with me. I didn’t know. It was complicated the way things worked back then in Detroit, which had become its own weird zone. Julia was supposed to tell me who. That’s what the phone call had been about: the name of the person.

It was just the three of us there in Fletcher’s as the Detroit night settled in, coming down from the sky, filling the place with whatever it was night filled places like this with. A sense of hope, maybe? Promise? Whatever it was Julia must have felt it too and I noticed the thin purple and red wires threading through her dreads. She removed her beret and set it on the bar. The buckled floor seemed to move a little bit, like it was sighing.

Everything here was Julia’s. Not just Fletcher’s and not just Detroit. Everything. I knew it and I feared it. At some point I became Julia’s too. I don’t know how or when this happened, or whether she intended it or not. Not hers in the sense of attraction (although there was that) but rather in the sense of seeing myself through her eyes. You could say I’d developed, in Detroit, a second self, a self that existed only insofar as Julia existed. And then—how it did it happen?—it became so that I could only see myself as I imagined Julia saw me. 

Julia never did give up the name of the person I was sent to save. I tried to leave the city but there was always some reason not to, always some reason to remain. The Detroit zone has begun to expand, I fear, naturalizing its presence so that someday, I’m sure, we won’t even call it a zone at all. That’s how ideology works. Maybe that’s how Julia worked. 

As for me, I feel now as if I’ve always been Julia’s Nick, just like that painting had always been Bellini’s, his hand reaching out across time. Maybe we all become the things we were before we became them. That’s what Julia would want me to think, at least. 

And so I do.

Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio) and the 33 1/3 book Ramones (Bloomsbury), as well as the director of the feature film The Removals. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine. He is a professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, at the corner of Six Mile and Livernois, in Detroit, Michigan.

Image source: Doug Zuba

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