Written by Keith Owens, co-founder of Detroit Stories Quarterly
6:51 p.m., 2021
New Year’s Eve
So Bobby and I are supposed to go to this party with a buncha folks that he knows (probably ain’t been for longer than a week) who told him this was the place to be for New Year’s. I believed him because Bobby’s always been the one to know where the party’s gonna be. He’s just good like that. Always has been, ever since we were kids. He was the one who could bluff his way into the best parties with way older kids and then convince whoever was at the door why they should let me in, too.
It’s been awhile since those days, like close to 30 years or more. And truth be told, Bobby and I haven’t hung together or even talked that much since we reached that age where technically you’re supposed to be adults. But, 2021 has been a year, just like 2020, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned through all this it’s that ain’t nothin’ promised. Or, whatever you thought was promised might not be promised anymore. It’s all up for grabs, which is why I figured this wasn’t the year that I wanted to spend all by my damned self (again) with a beer fallin’ outta my hand while I’m tryin to stay awake on the couch watching the ball drop in Times Square. I wanted to get back out there, back to the world like that Curtis Mayfield song. So, I rang Bobby up.
He sounded surprised to hear from me, but in a good way. After we got semi-caught up, tellin’ each other some of where we’d been and what we’d been up to, but leaving out a few things, too, he gave me an address that I recognized as being on the west side.
“Yo, can you pick me up? My car’s been actin’ funny and I gotta take it into the shop. It’d probably get us there, but I’d rather not take any chances. Especially not with the way it’s snowin’ out here, right?”
He was right about the snow, and I nodded even though I knew he couldn’t see me from his cell phone. Still, it was funny the memories that brought back; Bobby was always havin’ trouble with his cars. Even the ones he borrowed seemed to always have something wrong with them.
“Yeah, all right. Shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll be there around 11.”
Same old Bobby.
I picked him up from an apartment building in the section of Midtown that still looked like the old Cass Corridor, down but not out. Watching him come shambling out the doors toward the car, half limping, half jogging through the snow, let me know he had probably left out more than I had when we weregetting caught up on each other’s lives. He still had that lopsided grin though, which warmed me up. I was glad to see him.
He hopped in the car, then slammed the door so hard I thought the window was gonna crack.
“Damn, bruh! Go easy on the merchandise! This thing ain’t paid for yet, you know?”
Bobby threw his head back and laughed, which relaxed me a bit even though it probably should have worried me instead.
“Just drive, nigguh. I ain’t tryin to break your little delicate foreign car. Not on new year’s, anyway. But what a way to start the new year, right? Breakin’ your buddy’s car? Yo, what you need is to buy American, something that won’t break so easy. But anyway.”
He laughed again, then pointed straight ahead through the windshield. He was wearing gloves so frayed they were about to fall off, and I had to wonder what kinda party we were headed to, where you could get in dressed like that. But, no way would I have said that out loud and hurt his feelings. It just kinda hurt me that Bobby was in this shape and I hadn’t even known about it.
“So where we goin’, man?” I asked, tryin’ to sound cheerful.
“I gave you the address, right?”
“Damn. Yeah, right. OK, here we go. 2022, here we come!”
We slowed up in front of a rundown house on Clairmount that looked like nobody had lived there for years; two of the front windows on the second story level were boarded up, and the front screen door was hanging open. The porch light was on, but the porch looked suspect and there were no lights on inside. There were a lot of cars parked up and down both sides of the street, enough to suggest something was going on somewhere even if it wasn’t inside this house.
“Doesn’t look like there’s anywhere to park that’s close if that’s the house, but that can’t be the house. Ain’t no lights on and it looks like hell,” I said as I turned the corner down a side street.
Bobby nodded, looking solemn.
“Yeah, I guess it does look kinda messed up. Yo, that’s the address they gave me though, so…”
“You got somebody’s number you can call? Just to check? You never know, sometimes people can get things wrong even if they don’t mean to.
“I probably shoulda asked, but naw. She didn’t give me a number. Just said to show up.”
“Yeah, well, you know. Say, maybe if we hang here for a minute, then drive around the block again and see if anything changed?”
When we made our next pass around front the house was lit up like the Christmas tree downtown, and a packed crowd was hanging out on the porch, which now looked almost brand new. The screen door was closed but the door was open and I caught a glimpse of more bodies packed inside of a house that looked like I imagined it did when it was built nearly a century ago, just like most of the other houses on the block. The folks were laughin’, smokin’ and drinkin’ like the temperature wasn’t below 20 degrees and the snow wasn’t thick in the air getting ready to add several more inches to what was already on the ground.
And now there was a parking space in front. It was the only one I could see anywhere around, and it was under the streetlight. The perfect parking space. I looked at Bobby, eyebrow raised.
“This ain’t just me, right?”
Bobby shook his head real slow.
“Naw, bruh. Believe me, this ain’t just you. Let’s go around one more time.”
When we came back around, the space was still there, and the party was still jumpin’. I pulled up alongside the open spot and eased my foot onto the brake, the motor running, still making up my mind whether this was a good idea, when Bobby’s face lit up. He pointed toward the porch.
“Hey, there’s that girl who told me about the party!”
She was tall and slender with her hair done up in platinum, blonde, braided twists mixed in with black and brown. Despite the temperature, she wore a short, shimmery, sleeveless, silver dress and furry, white, stocking-type boots that reached above her knees. Right after Bobby yelled out his recognition, it was like she heard someone call her name, even though the car windows were rolled up and the music was loud enough to be shaking the whole block. Her eyes, which looked like they belonged to a cat, locked onto Bobby. She gave him a near-blinding smile as she beckoned with her forefinger, then began to grind her hips along to the music. Her locks began to rise from her scalp, writhing back and forth in slow motion. I remembered a movie I saw one time about this woman with a head full of snakes. Medusa…?
“What you waitin’ on, man? Let’s park this thing!”
“Bobby, you don’t see what’s goin’ on with that girl’s hair?”
Bobby gave me a look that I haven’t forgotten to this day, and I never will. His eyes looked wild, angry and scared all at the same time. And desperate. For a moment it looked like he was trying to say something, but the words wouldn’t come out. Then his eyes went flat, and there was this metallic tone in his voice that was colder than the weather.
“Man, I said park this thing”
New Year’s Day
I never did park the car, but I told Bobby if he wanted to go then he could. But I wasn’t coming. I thought maybe he looked sad, but it was just for a second before he called me something I wish he hadn’t and left me sitting there after he slammed the door behind him.
That was the last time I ever saw my friend. I still remember the braids on that girl’s head drifting back down to her shoulders as Bobby got closer, while her body started grinding and pulsing viciously like a maniac dance — or like it was hungry for something. The rest of the crowd had stopped whatever conversations they were having as Bobby stepped onto the porch. Their eyes began to glow, some green, some red as they focused their attention on the newcomer, circling in around him tight. Then the music stopped, and all I could hear was a low rumble of murmurs and hisses. Sounds like steam leaking from a pipe and another sound I don’t ever want to hear again squeezed through the rolled up windows of my car.
Bobby’s scream was cut short as his body was swallowed by theirs, and I mean that literally. They swallowed him.
From somewhere, a bell rang, echoing through the swirling snow. But it only rang once, and then the house went dark.
A new year had begun.