My Signature Itself is an Inferno
I was born in ‘83 to a city alive in fire and hurt, spent after seeping its lifeblood out to the streets where gangs and hoods all mish-mashed themselves like muddled oil to rage every other way while my city burned: Detroit- my nest and raven feather-fall hove- where outside is the silence of a thousand voices all breathing down their coats Get Me Out! or some wail of red and blue back-n-forth that meant another young man couldn’t take it anymore. Detroit! My Detroit, where the only motors are older and oily left rummaged, naked near some junk-scrap heaps or inside rust worn automotive train wrecks barreling down Gratiot windows up and nobody looking out, just straight-straight forward, like eye-contact might burn. I was young and heartfelt and earnest in everything- and God- and stayed to myself hold-tight in the four corners of my room where the crying didn’t get to me- not for years anyway.
Most of what I can remember from then is through a finger mark on glass, mere smudges. But in my mind a few veins run distinct, gold-filled, and it’s from those I shape most of my life. Quite vividly, I recall sitting on those polyester-like seats with the low backs colored a 50’s turquoise around that small, dark wood table I saved for my own home. The looters hadn’t touched it; the chairs are gone now. I was mashing my spoon over the crispy-blackened burn on some sort of cheese-meat concoction fueled on by welfare, and army-checks-cheap to make, I melted beneath a 40-watt and made faces to my milk. My mother slapped my arm, telling me to bolt up and sit good before Jesus. I never needed to be straightened more than once back then. When most kids were grimacing at brussels sprouts and ew-ing over rice-meat-mash, I always cleaned my plate and said Grace and meant it. On the sill next to the dinner table there was a picture of my mother amongst a whole litter of others (distant relatives and things, a million aun-tees and their flat-haired husbands). In the picture my mother had big hair and a dashiki on, staring down the camera with such intensity and anger, such Black is Beautiful hubris- or malice- leaking from every little pore you wouldn’t think that placid, smiling sweet-caramel visage tromping by the stove could be the same woman. I don’t mean to call her weak, for she lashed her tongue to me like other parents would the belt- her cuts ran deeper than leather and infected the marrow how a rosy-ass couldn’t – while after it all there was love and loss, sorrow to see me chastised and her to do it.
She kept a small library, though that might imply too much (a mite collection if anything, really), where I arrested that meager little body all bruised by older boys (and once a girl) to read Du Bois, and Hurston, Baldwin, Hughes, Wright, and Ellison, and all the other black authors which my mom, I discovered, would feed into the library to quell my voracious reading furnace. When the well ran dry I found the city library, and Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy (just a little), Steinbeck; all of them a new anywhere as my room shrank- or I grew- those four walls feeling more and more a prison than a sanctuary.
As I got older I became a little handsome, hidden before by big horn frames which I traded in for something slimmer. I also got a little stronger and stupider, dropping my books maybe a lot sometimes. You can’t stop youth, which is biting, bitter, forever spiteful and needy, so sometimes the booming bass from the streets would call me out, a dare I had to follow, where I’d drink, smoke, swallow, dance, laugh, hustle, run and run, fuck, steal, forget, remember it all the next day; I lit adolescence aflame, which, with a woof, took off like a bottle rocket amongst all those poor black boys not so much sitting as fuming on the sidewalk. The world owed us everything for our past, our poverty, but gave only an absolute nowhere in return; for somebody with all the world’s load on their backs has to look to the ground, or thinks they must, they believe they must. We took everything then, covet and disappear, smoke. That was my playground, hideaway rearing-place and each crumbling wreck began to etch into my skin and bones as roadways became veins and pumped this crowd or that crowd through me and across my concrete shell which, like time, would crumble, cracking.
Everything became anger then, the universe: boiling; as we, unable to know upon which thing to splash our acidic innards, simply let the sludge pool, build, melting more ourselves than any institution or people that might erode for real. We hated whites (with no cause), and people with ties, and stiffs, and fags, and ourselves- that only thing upon which our vengeance could really dent-, and stores, and money, and cars, and the homeless, and our parents, and rent, and food, and life and crowds and cities and love and guns and just everything ripe and real in the sun. All of it fell to a solemn black face with eyes like cinders smoking amongst burnt wood, ssssssssst.
My young, candescent, indestructible self got lucky though. Well, maybe you wouldn’t call it that because such pictures are always wax-drip paintings on simmer: phantasmagorical, yet potently bitter above anything. Marquis kept his head shaved, low- a fresh from the gate charger bull- whose dark African color made him blur into shadows over teeth like beaming headlights; he lived slow (dumb slow), but kept a certain intensity about others, catching both ends of the spectrum, which made him a terrible image to see roaring down on you brick-fisted and red, frothing at the mouth, but a fantastic friend if you could get near him. He took sharp to me, near instantly. See, I had a few close friends, which you had to have then, but none like him- furious mountain of flesh and freight train running, a hood, I guess; but he latched on close and promised himself at me and told me he loved me how we all did back then, though nobody would say it: with a sideways glance filled with that cinder-cooling stare as though some worldly barrier had crumbled enough that you might appear just a bit naked inside, show that you were, as us all: scared, little. If you saw that in one of your brothers, you knew them, fully.
Just a few days before it happened he’d turned into a paranoid mess. Somebody had taken down a boy he called his brother, biological-blood was irrelevant to him, and he Swore To God he would be next. So we were gut-laughing at him in an alley between two apartment buildings over some bitter wine in a paper bag. If you kept in with him, you could poke a little at his side: only sometimes though. We had weary eyes from huffing glue a few days/hours before, and slunk around bent over and sloth-like, feet dragging. I sat up on a dumpster edge just next to Marquis and kept catching myself from tumbling in. Staring down on that shaved head with the crisscross scar in back I laughed, weighted yet airy. This ain’t a fuckin’ joke! Real: I seen it in my dreams. I’m dead. Another burst of laughter drowns him out. Bending down with some stupid crack, he turns before I get too close and ends me with a stare. The edges of his mouth turn down really deep like they’re escaping past his face, and such utter helplessness that I never saw back then put a pin through an artery somewhere as a pang hit my stomach. After that, I believed him too. Just within a week it happened. So my luck came on because Marquis, Marquis, coal fuming afterburner extreme, let loose on some other kid to reshape a face for doing something to his friends; then he got himself shot for it. That was my ticket, my gilded-ugly, riding away from Detroit on a For Sale sign and a worried little woman hugging me to her breast just tight enough. But as I said, tears wouldn’t come then, not for a while now.
Dirt is a kind and welcoming thing, but you can’t dig up some spiny cactus and expect it to grow amongst frozen-tundra miles; just as some flint-sharp little black teen can’t suddenly appear amongst a whole crowd of self-repressed white kids and start grooving simple, no. One of those Aun-tees in the pictures on the tables had an apartment on the edge of Redford, and we moved in with them in ‘97. Through some loophole I’m sure they’d threaded themselves, she got her son, and eventually me, into some prissy, suburban school miles away from there. After being exposed to them, I made a pact with my own self to never live in the suburbs. They’re sick factories of homogenizing stamp-presses where some steel bit comes down to slam souls from hearts and bleed the sick sows till their guts become octogenarians and the realization they’re plastic inside kills them.
This isn’t some sop-story line where I don’t fit in and rise above it: hardly. Those white kids couldn’t get enough of me. They’d never seen a real black kid before, and certainly not one who could talk them down devil-tongue ways so they knew they were stupid. So after the thirtieth baby face leans over in lunch and asks to touch your hair and then gets a stupid grin, you give in to it a bit. I walked those bleached-out halls with a sick swagger I would learn to recognize and hate in others. My fire, all consuming before, became more a morphine-pumping shriveler dying on old linen, smoked out almost. Walking in that first day I was Hey You, but by the end of high school they about plastered my shit-eating grin over a full yearbook page, which everyone could point to and say how ‘diverse’ they were, before looking left and right to whisper some nigger-lips joke.
This wasn’t the first time, because there had been- maybe- billions like it, but it sticks out to me because I left after that and burned before some purer idol all my schooling memories until they twisted to a sourer chord. The teacher (Mr. S-something, it’s inconsequential) had assigned the class The Souls of Black Folk to read, and was warbling in this sort of baritone two-step where every few words he’d drag one out. I’d read it before, so I filled the class focusing dreamily on the various posters around the room and tracing invisible lines in the rug till they ran out into the wall.
Just at some passage my gaze happened to cloud-breeze by the teacher’s manicured beard and I saw him make a small movement. It wasn’t anything big and nobody caught it- everybody behind me was either sniffing the binding or shooting rays out into space- but I know I saw it, and this snippet of time will stay tattooed on my retinas, a slide projector clicked on, forever. Right at a passage in “Of Wings of Atalanta” he flicked his eyes up and hung airborne over the word. Those eyes didn’t just kick anywhere though, they shot a bolt straight to me. In a nanosecond snap I felt a tingling in my fingers like I hadn’t in years, and had to sheath my fingernails beneath my life-line crease so hard they imprinted there Morse code for: Silence Now.
I had given some of my all to them, these communal-trashing drug runners of guilt, only to realize they never took in a damn morsel of any bull I could cook up. Deion W didn’t slide so easy off their lips without You Know, That One or some other thing like it. Even to themselves I wonder if they ever say it: nigger. Webs slung out across boundless expanses, shot to each other and connected in the instant of that little stare: I was not of them. A giant bellows suddenly closed and a Great Mighty wind took up to swirl, sweeping the classroom to tear nuclear-fallout style those placid-cattle faces, me at the center and stoked to such anger as fake compassion and cinnamon-sweet cynicism can ever hope to start. For the rest of the class I stared death at the man, who couldn’t take my menace-burn. At college (coasted in by sweat and scholarships) I kept that stare going all four years, even while I slept.
I would steam like a boiled-over pot for years after school. Maybe it was that I still felt forcibly up-heaved, an invading species gnawing at the safety blanket thrown over me. Following that idea, or maybe just being chased by things (a guilty weight on my soul), I made my way down to where my grandparents once lived and from where my mom had ‘escaped’, as she said it, deep down to the black South: Georgia. I came in on a train, a thin wad tucked in my jeans, no real blue-print for what became a three-year engagement.
Finding easy nirvana just-like-that is a Mother Goose lore sort of thing which never really happens. Nobody hammered that in on me. Suddenly you find yourself fighting off the gauzy waves of cocaine rolling in like lightning PAM! and throwing half-hearted fists at a condom dispenser in a rural gas station just north of Albany. With a heave-heave-and-pull of my lungs I tossed out another hit down on the metal box, which stood, in my mind, as some sick testament to the unbreakable truth of how things really are.
Emerging from the dankest, sallowest, piss-stained and puke-painted den of a backroom john the state could offer, the white clerk notices this eye-sunk and lanky black boy coming out with two bloodied, twisted hands. Then he starts off on You goin’ okay there-a, boy? But I push past him to the back and clutch from the ice machine two frosty chunks which sort of burn yet feel just enough beyond everything that I couldn’t care less. It’s at that time I realized I was babbling at the clerk really angry things nobody can understand. Had there been a shooting they would have broadcast the security tape with all my dialogue reading: [Incoherent yelling]. But the pretty packages crinkled at me from the racks, the candy bars casting side-long, menacing looks, and I came to the next morning on a familiar couch.
Whatever home or fossilized answer I thought was buried beneath the Georgian red dust eluded me, just as it should have, and I left the place no better or more detoxed-out than when I’d gone there. Driving down I imagined some Nigger Moon sort of fantasy to happen where a million chains clinking underground might drive me to a right-good place where gospel choirs bellowing out Hallelujahs and threw a strong arm around me, or along those lines at least. So Georgia was dried, as was the South, and I had to take stock of things. I was 25 and broke and credit-less with no real future save for a degree I didn’t want to use and a wandering soul. That same cousin who I’d lived with years before invited me over to Chicago. I caught a train up from Savannah and pulled into Union Station in the black heart of depthless December. The buildings reflected a billion pinpricks of light which somehow kept a stasis against a flurry of lights and people. My breath escaped to run rampant against that wide, chaotic scene as those imprints glazed me over; I would have taken that moment and encased the thing in glass to enjoy forever, but the cold off the lake beat bitter on me, as I’d adapted to the Georgian sun, and chased me inside.
Those next few years were grand, now seated near the back of my mind like those docked ships breezing in their mooring state out on Lake Michigan; those rustling tree-towers bobbing the tide. Cities did nothing for me, as the country had failed as well. It was only when I met a great man by the name of Ed DeWain, who worked along with me as a custodian at one of the high-risers downtown, that things changed. He was old and rickety in his gait, but through stubbornness or will kept a spring to it. The whole building knew him as that old nigger happily singing showtunes just out of key, his chocolate skin blotched along a balding head which rocked back and forth in time. I met him there and distrusted him the same way I did anybody, keeping a deep pool between us and always grunt-working very business-like with no smile or recognition to that warm presenter buffing tile not far from me. Without even a hair of evidence that I might be at all interested, he began to fill me in on all the small things about him.
I say small only because there were no big things to the man, as every memory no matter the flavor came crisp and bite-sized, and to collect those crumbs of thought together into one collective heap took even me years of study to design him in my brain. Although I never flashed a look to him that I cared, I did listen, as I always listen, and his whole self began to flood upon me. Eventually he asked me to join him at his bar (ownership is possessive of the soul), and I accepted without saying a thing, or at least I must have because I found myself there a few hours later.
I give you only the slimmest peek through a foggy day at the man because I could write a book on him alone, but don’t want to yet. The peak of this mountain is his effect on my own spirit. Him, with his loose lips slipped past my guard to that bulging, beating, mass of insecure dynamism planted so deep beneath organs or skin that it’s able to grow off that drive of the soul unconscious, and there he, almost magically, waved a hand and wished it all away, forcing that awfulness out to die in the heat of my being. It wasn’t magic though, and it wasn’t instant, (though to me it seemed as such) because two years went by before I could harbor up the strength to let it all out. I sat on a wooden stool, missing most of the connect bars, habitually swishing my mug around, looking up and across the sheen bar top as Ed near drowned me in another almost-soliloquy that I knew him for. But when he wanted to be silent he did it well, and the gasping stillness and the clink of glass around me overcame any barracks I’d aligned against talking. The creased face bent down and hovered me back up to look at it. His eyes were wide, exactly as windows, so I spoke to them in the hopes I’d get deep into him.
I answered his question, which I can’t remember, trying to pass off a comment about never having to visit Detroit again. Of course he sees through it, down past my words and to what it means: I am a runaway fugitive of a substandard society which breeds out disheveled near-clones that beg to be set free from the cement, upon which they were raped by the entire world. Assaulted by geography, which kept them together; abandoned by fathers who were trapped up themselves; taught by lean evils to distrust a smile; then finally taken by their own thoughts, which couldn’t see anywhere else to go. Ed let a soft grin out, which evolved to a chuckle, which exploded eventually to an all-out gut buster.
“The world is small and people don’t change much. You’ll rise above that because you’re a fierce little giant. Don’t take shit because we’re all the same blood, so never spill a drop of your own because someone else might need it.”
I got a phone call from my aunt a few months later that my mother had died. I quit being a janitor and came back home.
The funeral was small, but lovely, with heart-shaped flowers topping off the casket after they had closed it. Iron-faced soldiers, myself included, marched it down the aisle. Spring had set in near that small brick hove just off Seven Mile where heads turn down and handshakes bleed, so I watched the overcast roll in above me. When they lowered that blessed body down to the earth, I waited for the very face of God to come down and touch my mother’s body upon the forehead, divining her presence and the solemn event as a miracle site.
As I said earlier, I did not cry as a child, but seeing the existence of somebody who loved me be taken away, and knowing the clouds would not part that day, even if they really should have because nowhere on the planet could there be so amazing a person as one who could love me, and knowing that my once shackled voice couldn’t be kept back anymore, for it came bursting forth so verbose that mountains still ring of it, I had to cry. I wept and I wept for a whole week straight, buried away from the world as I spent my whole body into shudders and moans which drained me absolute. Emerging as a skeleton of emotion, all colors or cares floated beyond my touch as weeks might have passed without my knowing it.
But this is today and today is an evil day, because Hell’s fire threatens any soul damned enough to stab their own backs. So I shall spill no more blood by keeping this hatred locked within me. I cannot hate whites, or people with ties, or stiffs, or fags, or stores, or money, or cars, or the homeless, or parents, or any of those things. All the evil in the world is capable by my own hands, and by those hands I shall forge a steel against that evil, as I know its soul; and you will hear my name echoed by those youths wild running city streets, but it will sound just like Hope. Though Anger may burn things I am Love incarnate, and the searing, white-hot density of that flame will overtake Hell itself, for this bottled firecracker person fits to melt disfigured idols, and my signature itself is an inferno.
Deion Washington was born and raised in Detroit Michigan. He used to be angry but has gotten over it. He is new to writing, but feels he has a story to tell.