Jimmy Clemmons can charm your wife on the phone. He’ll say something like this: “Don’t be afraid of a little mouse. Maybe he just wants to make you a pretty dress, like in Cinderella.” Your wife will like the flattery, she will laugh; she will think Jimmy Clemmons is funny and endearing.
Jimmy Clemmons is a fellow who’ll hit three Blazing Sevens on a slot machine at the Greek Town casino in Detroit to win the jackpot, but since he doesn’t read well, he doesn’t understand he’s supposed to play three quarters to win the full amount, but he will laugh at himself nevertheless. He’s the kind of man who will come into your bedroom at your father’s home after you’ve just buried your son, murdered by a man in Wichita, Kansas, and put his arm around you while you stare at nothing. He will let you know he’s your friend.
I was thirteen and it was cold as hell. Clemmons and I stood in front of Club Eleven. We’d worked up the courage to go inside to look for his mother. He hadn’t seen her for two days, and he was hungry. No food in the refrigerator. No food in the cupboards. Butch was sixteen and at his girlfriend’s. He said he’d seen them once through a crack in the door, his brother moving on top of her, grunting. “I saw her tit,” Clemmons said.
“What’d it look like?” I said.
He squeezed his own tit, spit on the sidewalk. “They were talking about some girl they knew at school. My brother called her a slut.”
“Think she’ll be there?” I said.
“Hard to say. She goes to the Eastgate Bar or Gabriel’s, makes the rounds.” Clemmons’s mother was usually with a woman he called Aunt Peggy, but they weren’t related. “If I can get some money from her, I’ll buy us a pack of smokes. Then we’ll go skating.”
Jimmy Clemmons could stop on a dime and skate backwards just as fast as he hurled his body forward across the ice, making everyone get out of the way. We spent hours at the pond behind the high school football stadium until the lights went out at ten o’clock. The pond drew us there most every night during winter, like a shiny pearl you can’t stop looking at.
The bar scared me. “We can’t go in there,” I said.
“Don’t be a pussy.”
When we walked into the bar a blast of warm, sticky air hit us. Voices cackled over a jukebox playing Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife.” Smoke rolled toward us. Several people at the bar turned to stare. “Close the fucking door,” a man said.
We saw his mother. There was neon everywhere: on the sidewalk in front of Club Eleven; in a sign blazing Pabst Blue Ribbon over the bar; neon in the shape of beer bottles hanging on the wall. There was so much red and blue light it turned the faces of people into Halloween masks.
Earlier that week Clemmons asked me if I wanted a piece of cake. His mother bought a chocolate cake. It was growing dark, and I knew I was supposed to be home when the streetlights came on, but the idea of cake lured me down the block to his house. “Sure,” I said. “Cake sounds good.”
I find it shameful and disconcerting that no one took the time to teach Clemmons to read—the system failed him, but he can take apart a car engine and put it back together. He can make things out of wood, do plumbing and electrical. His real job is driving a truck sixty hours a week and he’s good at it, wheeling around building and construction sites in Detroit because he knows the city like the back of his hand, like he’s got some kind of built in global positioning device. He can tell you the shortest routes between two destinations anywhere in metropolitan Detroit. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of a bad boy gone criminal because he had a difficult childhood. He still calls me about twice a month to tell me how things are in Detroit, how there isn’t much work to be had, and even if he could get a job at one of the auto plants, he’s too old. There’s a quality about his voice, the voice of those disappointed by life. He calls me to ask if I remember skating at the pond.
On the night he invited me to his house for a piece of cake, daylight faded behind Lincoln Elementary where Clemmons went to school. I didn’t care that he couldn’t read; he was my friend and books were not that important to a couple of thirteen-year-old boys.
The door to Clemmon’s house was always open. No one had a key. The house was dark. He told me to be careful because the kitchen light was the only one that worked.
I was afraid of his brother. “Is Butch home?” I said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Clemmons said, “I won’t let him kick your ass.”
I saw the cake on the table when Clemmons flipped the light switch. It took a moment for our eyes to adjust. Then it seemed as though the cake moved, as if it pulsed in the bright kitchen light. At first I thought it was a trick of vision, but then I realized it was a mass of scurrying cockroaches running across the table and down its legs to the floor, like a puddle disappearing under the baseboard.
“I think I’d better go,” I said.
“I guess you don’t want any cake,” Clemmons said with a laugh; I laughed too.
“See you tomorrow,” I said.
“You want to skate?”
I thought about how cold it was walking back to my house. A shiver ran through me, but I knew it’d be warm at home. I knew my father would be settling in to watch Maverick, a bag of potato chips in his lap, a Pepsi nearby on a TV tray. I knew they were going to ask me if I had fun at the pond. I knew I’d say it was a great time, and then slump onto the couch with my father and dig into the bag of potato chips.
There would be a warm blanket on my bed, a small radio on a shelf over my head, its dial glowing yellow. Tomorrow I’d go to the Edgar A. Guest Junior High and read Huckleberry Finn. Clemmons would skip school. From my room I heard my mother and father talking, then I fell asleep.Return to Table of Contents