Some don't like it that Charley and I live on the wrong side of the tracks, in Highland Park. It's the only rent in Detroit we can afford.
To put food in our bellies, I hang sheetrock. I'm fast and reliable; the wealthy contractors tell me. But they can't fool me, its pop-psychology—a carrot, a mule.
Hanging ceiling board is the worse, especially when working alone. I wear my worn hard hat when using the scaffold or ladder, to balance the seventy-pound gypsum planks. My leathery neck is as thick as an elephant trunk. Sometimes when I arrive home, I shuffle a crooked walk.
Charley snickers, says, "Greetings, Herman Munster."
I live to see Charley laugh. He's such a sweet kid. But mostly, I'm filled with more darkness than a Russian novel. I fight to keep things the same for Charley's sake, and somehow, we more than get through.
Just this summer, I gave him a big boy birthday party at Buddy's Pizza. You know the one on Conant Street. And just a Saturday ago, we flew kites in Palmer Park, the one with the gothic water fountain that looks like a leaky giant's headstone. We do a lot together, more than before.
It's Halloween. From the view of our rickety porch, the moon is rising. He's slumming, dressed as a Buddha. His saffron, candle kite robe is stuck on the hickory branches.
This year, I'm an empty Jack Daniels liquor bottle, Charley, a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.
Until Charley catches on, I tell him I need to sample the bite-sized Snickers and Twix.
"They may be poisoned, Charley?" After a while, he fractures the darkness with his high pitched laugh. He says, "Bull-shit pops." From then on, he grips the half-empty pillowcase close to his chest.
Neighbor John invites me in for a drink, laughs his ass off. I say not tonight, buddy. As Charley and I hold hands down his steps for support, the high-tech renter, in the two-story gentrified house shouts out, "Make sure next year you're filtered." Charley downloads a Megabyte smile as if he knows him.
I get high fived from a brother around the block, on Manchester Street. As he struts down the sidewalk, his head is a dreidel. He chuckles, "Watch that shit, it killed Janus Joplin."
Almost home, a woman curves the corner, in a rusted-out Jetta, as if she's got a ghost up her ass. She yells out a string of profanities, and throws a handful of Candy Corn at us. It's our only Halloween drive-by this year. Any kid who knows candy thinks they suck. But deep inside, I obsess, "Maybe it's all about what we deserve."
"I shout at Charley, "Leave those on the ground. Nobody likes 'em." He's only eight, not too discerning. "And by the way," I say, "Ignore the bitch and her potty-mouth."
Charley barks back, "Whatever." It's what kids say now-a-days, whenever something is good or bad. He says that a lot.
I've been a stickler about raising my boy the right way. So I teach Camels a thing or two. From what I read in one of those fancy magazines at the dentist's office. To those big shot's, it's all about behaviorism. Behaviorism is when you reward good behavior, and correct bad behavior or something like that. Well, I admit it's a bit confusing, so I mainly concentrate on just loving Charley as much as I can.
Up the steps at home, I trip and break my bottle.
Later, we huddle and warm ourselves near the open oven door and share Charley's candy. I tell Camels, "all in all, we had a pretty good day."
Tired Charley says, "Yah dad, except we could have gotten more candy."
I say, "Camel's, there is something about being happy with whatever you get, and not making less seem like a bad thing. Sometimes 'less' teaches us what is important.
Later that night, as I tuck Charley in, he whispers, "I miss mom, daddy." I kiss him on the forehead. His pillow smells like a Snicker's bar. I smile at him in the dark. "That makes two of us, Charley," I say. I clear my throat of emotion. "We make a good team Camels. We are doing our best."
"Yes," he says, cruising into the soft curves of sleep. His red digital clock blinks 12:01 as if making a left turn away from midnight. Then Charley begins to steer toward his full candy-sack of tomorrows.
Before he disappears, I say, "Next year, Charley, you can be filtered. It's healthier. As for me, I think I will replace myself with Southern Comfort. After all, that is the only drink Janis really liked."
"Goodnight then Southern Comfort!"
"Goodnight Camels, I love you from here to the Raleigh cigarette factory in North Carolina and back."
Damned song, I worry, I'll have this "Take another little Piece of My Heart, Baby" ear worm crawling around in my head until Thanksgiving.
A little later, giggles can be heard, in the two dark bedrooms.
Ok, I know how curious readers are. Last May, we adorned Mia in a brand new coffin. Take comfort, though. I am almost certain, come next Halloween, she will rejoin Charley and me, dressed as a ghost.