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South Omaha From the F Street Exit, JFK Freeway

by Dani Bojanski

Winner of the 2011 Creative Nonfiction Prize at Hunger Mountain, judged by Sue William Silverman

We stop at the red light even though we don’t really have to.  There’re no cars coming; a few, maybe, if it were Saturday when the little men and ladies sally from their wooden houses, making their way to vigil mass at St. Bridget’s, a semi truck maybe lumbering up the hill from the warehouses to the freeway, but we’d hear him.  There’re no cops either.  They are busy elsewhere.  But we wait anyway, my husband and I, under the red light and the sign that tells us to wait for green to turn right.

That building in the distance—the blocky, brick one with the fire escape stuck out the back like a spine, the only tall building peeking its head from this low, little landscape—that’s the Stockyard Exchange Building.  It used to be offices and boutiques and barbershops back in the 50s when Omaha became the largest stockyard in the world, but the stockyards are closed now, the building converted with thermostats and sub-floors and cabinets to low-income apartments where the adjuncts from the community college live beside low level drug dealers and immigrant families come to work in the packinghouses.  But they’re pretty apartments: all brick and window, the names of old businesses still stenciled on the doors.  The arched windows up top—those are ballrooms, a north and south ballroom where my brownie troop once won the gold metal in a talent competition for a song about housekeeping.  I got to toss the stuffed cat off the stage as we sang.  There’s a Polaroid of the moment somewhere in my parents’ house.  What I mean to say is that the ballrooms survived the other closings and changes.  A catering company in the suburbs owns full rights to them now and rich people drive into these old parts to get married and celebrate.  We couldn’t afford the fee—not even for the cheese and crackers buffet.

From here to there: all train track and decomposing cow shit where the pens used to be.  And Johnny’s restaurant, where Jack Nicholson filmed a scene for a movie in which he played a lonely and pathetic old man.  We all rushed to the theaters, to see our Johnny’s lit on the big screen, but came away quiet—the restaurant looking as lonely and pathetic as Nicholson’s widowed character.

The light turns green and we turn right.  My husband shimmies in his seat, a wiggle that begins in his hips and moves through his torso and shoulders and head.  I know that shimmy.  It speaks.  It says, “Thanks for not offering to drive, Dan,” and it says, “Here we go,” to the popped-spring mattress we’ll sleep on for two nights, to the constant nagging of my nephew to play, Chris, play, to the odors of dried blood and creosote, and to the clanks and bangs of the cars backfiring and the slaughterhouses waking that will call us from our weekend sleep before the sun rises.

We cross the bridge over the train tracks and the industry: the warehouses and the lots of the trucking company, the storage piles of loose asphalt, the byproduct processing plant that smells like dog food. This is the bridge of my dreams.  It appears often, sometimes grand and gold like a national landmark, and disappears just as often, once in patches as I light-stepped across it, toeing each section before committing my foot, should it crumble before me, and when it did, moonlight coming through the holes, inexplicably from below.  Once it was gone completely—simply no bridge—and I found myself sprinting at the great gap, ready to jump across the pit, launch my body into the smelly air, until my sister stopped me, yelling at my back and, when I turned around, pointing to a jet liner waiting to ferry me across.  The next morning over cereal, I couldn’t recall whether I was trying to get in or out.

We drive past Vanivar, where the train tracks split and angle into a yard ringed with chain link, where liquid cars sit filled with hazardous waste.  When one year the maples starting dying, people pointed towards Vanivar and whispered leak.  The city sent inspectors and we watched ours trees for other signs of unhappiness, scratched our fingernails at the bark and pulled the lowest branches down into our faces to smell the leaves.  When the report came back clean, we were left to wonder from where else the death might be coming.

The houses climb up the hills and sit atop the little canyons carved out by the tracks.  They are small and pale and dusty and have shutters decorating the sides of the windows and metal swing sets in the yard.  A thin, blonde brick steeple sits above the neighborhood, like a dunce’s cap.

The bridge descends steeply and Chris steps on the brakes early to stop at the stop sign below.  After sunset, we might not stop here—“Just don’t even bother,” my mother used to tell me when I first began to take the car out alone and late—but since it’s not quite dark, we behave.  The left headlight of our little car, which has been out for over a month, flickers on as we slow. We both stare dumbly through the windshield at the street illuminated in front of us.  “Magic,” I whisper.

Chris rolls his eyes at me and steps hard on the gas. We pass the power station and the empty lot where they’ve torn down the condemned house, we pass WC’s Place and Cheepo’s Mechanics, who have painted their garages cobalt blue.  We pass the sign requesting us to report odors to this telephone number.

Not far down the tracks is the slaughterhouse, hunkered down in sheet metal among the other buildings, surviving still, churning out meat and muscle, hide and bone, exhaling into the air over the neighborhood a melancholy cloud of cow souls.  At five p.m., a worker showers the ground with a fire hose, washing from the lot a day’s worth of death into the sewer where it courses under the city or into the road, where car tires dampen with it and trace it through the streets.

“People live here,” a college friend said to me—the first one I ever invited home for a weekend.  “Sure,” I said, leaning away from the steering wheel and over her, pointing out the bicycles lying in the yards, the flowerpots and uncoiled garden hoses, “people live here.”  She sat on her hands and stretched her legs out straight.  “Why?” she asked.

~

My parent’s house is a big yellow shoebox with a green-shingled roof and gable scrolls that my mother ordered from a catalogue.  The picket fence that lines the yard is warped and worm-eaten and swallowed here and there by bean vines, morning glories, moonflowers.  There’s a cowbell hanging from the front gate, jingle bells hanging on the back.  There’s a bear standing in the fountain at the side of the house, his feet glued to bricks so that he’s harder to steal.  My father calls him Guido.

Two garages sit along the back alley, slowly covering themselves in trumpet vines.  The small one is old, original, swallowed also in front by a dense cloud of wisteria, and my parents stopped bothering to open the gates and move the toys and wheelbarrows to park in there a long time ago.  It’s filled now with sawhorses and old cans of paint, bags of cement mix and broken lawnmowers: leftovers and remnants from the transformation from shoebox to home, evidence of work and work and more work. I learned to play tennis against the garage’s door, until I shattered all the windows and could hit the ball hard enough to crack the rotting wood.

The big one is new, doublewide for the ping-pong table and radio, a line of rusting lawn chairs along the wall, punctuated twice with stacked milk crates, tables for spectators’ beers.  A set of stairs stained mustard yellow and decorated with super heroes leads to the Boys’ Club, a space wedged between the ceiling and the roof where my five-year-old nephew conducts secret meetings with my father, my brother, and my husband.  They make exclamations like horseshit (which might be the Boys’ Club password) and talk boobs until the plywood floor pushes slivers through their jeans.

An airplane propeller noses out from the peak of the roof, spreading dual blades into the evening air, and spins along at a clip so fine the garage might just lift from the ground.

My father built the new garage—his therapy after he was shot delivering his mail route between the park and grade school.  He slept for two days after the shooting, emerging from his bedroom for only minutes at a time to watch the still-endless news footage of himself post-incident, the newscasters never saying gang-related, his head and neck a blaze of red where the pellets skimmed across his skin.  He holed up in the living room another three days, tired and teary, waiting for someone to come finish the job.  No, no, no, the detectives said, a random act of violence.  Freak occurrence.  Fuckhead kid.  And then he seemed finally to hear them.  He put pants on and stepped outside into the afternoon and built a garage.

I’d been looking at myself in the hallway mirror when the call came from my sister: “Dad got shot in the face or something,” she said.  Four weeks later, we had a new garage, an unpainted, hulking plywood shell in which my father offered to host a party for Chris’s and my upcoming wedding. Our already cheap plans I knew were a certain affront to Chris, whose personality tends toward pomp and ceremony: he attends every possible wedding, baptism, and graduation and celebrates his birthday like an annual astrological festival.  My father looked into Chris’ genteel, small-town face, as round and honest as a pumpkin, and said, “Pizza.  Ping-pong.”  And no one will tell a recently shot mailman no, so.

We park in the alley next to an electrical pole posted with the red, white, and blue sign of the Burlington Road Neighborhood Association.  Violence in South Omaha has increased in the past few years and the shootings and beatings and stabbings are pressing in on even the oldest and quietest neighborhoods, renewing their immigrant-era reputations as places of blood and bruises.  A local state-senate hopeful stepped up and that’s when these signs made their advance onto every streetlight and electrical pole within ten square blocks.  “For the kids,” the crusader said, we needed friendship, unity, and so we got a name like a suburban subdivision—we are Burlington Road.  The sign says “KEEPING THE NEIGHBORHOOD ON TRACK.”  It is dented and sticky with something someone threw at it.

Ahead of us, the alley extends a lunar landscape to 36th Avenue, pockmarked and potholed with cavities that swallow tires whole and fill with water when it rains and become a great chain of lakes.

The dogs come running, chewing at each other’s throats in excitement, and sniff at us through the fence—the grey-eyebrowed beagle bays into space, the mutt, a foxy, slinky animal with only half a brain, puts his paws on the fence and whines.  Bagel and Lyle.  Gustavo, the Mexican immigrant next door, calls them Beggar and Liar.  He edges his sidewalk with a steak knife, just as my mother taught him when he was new to the neighborhood, and calls to Beggar and Liar to shut up por favor as the two idiots yap at him while he does his yard work.

My mother pokes her head-full of hippie-gray hair out from behind the big garage and waves her plastic broom in the air.  Chris nudges me away from the overfilled laundry basket that I’m wrestling from the backseat.  “Go see your mom,” he says.

She’s walking toward us now, thin-limbed and covered, as always, in paint and dirt and grass stains, dragging the broom on the ground and talking and talking and talking.  I catch snippets of her conversation through the cry of the dogs: didn’t know to think before dark or after, need to call my sister, pizza for dinner, good god how much laundry.  We meet at the gate and she grabs my head with both of her hands, pressing the broom handle into my cheek, pulls my face to hers, and kisses me.  I taste Vaseline on her.  “I have a surprise for you,” she says.

“It’s a surprise for you too,” she yells to Chris, who’s lugging the laundry basket towards the gate.  He reaches us, balances the basket on the line of picket points, and she kisses him on the lips, leaving a shiny smear.

She glances past us to our car, the leaky and stuttering two-door glowing green in the last light.  Then, with all the sternness she can muster, she looks me in the eye and says, “Oh, you washed it.”

We wash the car each time before we visit my parents.  I take it the day before we leave and hit it with the spray gun and foam brush.  Sometimes I try to wax it, but I can’t get rid of the white marks from when we got sideswiped or the rust starting to grow out from the wheel wells, so I’ve stopped.  I vacuum the insides though, even the trunk, so that if my dad peeks in, he’ll know that we take care of things.  “That’s why I wash the car,” I tell my mom, but each time we pull up in the alley, she chides us for wasting our time and quarters.  “The cow dust’ll come tonight,” she says, “and muck that pretty thing all up.”

Two blocks away—closer even if you walk the diagonal path over the train tracks—is the slaughterhouse, where thousands of cows moo and poop and sweat and bleed awaiting their entrance into the low door of the cattle chute, where the air gun pops and reels and delivers fate.  Until then they breathe and belch methane, flank to flank, their massive and collective body agitated and respiring in its concrete and metal yard.  A living cow seems to me all fluid: piss and perspiration, watery rolling eye and liquid sadness.  Even before death they are rising like steam into the atmosphere, a humidity that mingles with the dust shaken loose from trains, the brown exhaust of semis and the sharp curses of their drivers.  And in the morning, they descend with the dew, coating the world like a black pollen.

We wipe the cow dust away with paper towels and the pages of yesterday’s newspaper because the dust is also greasy.  Glass in the neighborhood shows smears of rainbow when the light hits it just so and the dogs go radiant and slick when they roll in the grass.  My mother spends her weekends power-washing the house and the car, hanging her body half out open windows with a rag and a bottle of diluted vinegar.

I live a state east now.  In a city busy with farmer’s markets and film festivals, Friday night jazz and poetry readings.  The people there use words like probiotic and drink tea imported from Japan and darkened with clouds of bacteria, which they explain to me is good for digestion.  They go to yoga classes and stretch into downward dog in their offices over lunchtime.  They can palm the floor from a standing position.  “You never use pesticide,” a friend once explained to me as she talked about the challenges of gardening kale among vines of creeping jenny and clumps of dandelion.  Chemicals are a strict no-no.  “Bleach?” I’ve asked.  No bleach.  “Bug spray?”  I’ve asked.  No bug spray.  Embrace the weeds, the bacteria, the bugs—all natural, people explain to me.  All good. I go to Pilates classes now, and I know what beets taste like and that they taste excellent.

It is like heaven in my new city and I am flexible and well-nourished and blessedly regular.  But South Omaha has its meat hooks in me. It is in my bones, my blood, my teeth: the chemical, the crap, and the cow built into me as I developed in the womb.  The head bone is connected to the slaughterhouse.  And to the baseballs knocked solid onto the train tracks by boys, to the beer, and to the bright foam coozie that protects my father’s hands from the dampness and chill.  It proclaims in orange letters that THESE ARE MY DRESS CLOTHES.

The graffiti is pressing into the old neighborhoods, artless tags on a shed, a fence, a lamp post, un-love letters to people and rivals announcing: someone will scare you, someone will hurt you, don’t dare tread here.  And sometimes when we get home from a weekend at my parents, I want to smear at the cow dust stuck to the hood of our car, get my hands all good and smudgy with it, ring all my neighbors’ doorbells, and raise my oil-black hands to them, say, “Smell.”

~

My mom has told me before that she has a surprise.  Once, it was a flower opening at night, her first moonflower, escaped from the casing of its tough and unfriendly seed, unwinding itself into a blossom as broad and white as a paper plate. Another time, it was a pint of orange sherbet waiting for me in the freezer, and another the neighbors across the street, blinds up, lights on, fighting and eating and kissing, their bright picture window our theater all evening as we sat on the porch and drank beer.  “You’re selling the house,” I guess as she slides open the backdoor for us.  She pushes air through her lips at me.  “No,” she says, “no.”

I look for the surprise all evening.  We eat the pizza reheated in the microwave with mismatched forks bought from Goodwill—“Isn’t that a cute one?” my mom asks as I raise a bite to my mouth.  I look at the fork, the scallops on the handle, and nod.  We whack away at the florescent orange ping-pong ball with paddles worn to their sandpaper faces and listen to the Blues Brothers.  We play the song “Rubber Biscuit” because John Belushi trills that last note so high and ridiculous and my nephew laughs deep and long from his full-moon belly, so we play the song again and again.  My mother tours me around the yard pointing out new blooms and where she’d like to plant a tree.  But there’s no surprise.

We watch the evening news together and I wait to see a picture of a high school friend during the Most Wanted segment, which was once another of my mother’s surprises.  “Remember when Joe Jaworski robbed Radio Shack?” she asks.  “Remember how big his ears were?  That’s how they knew it was him.”  The anchor reports another execution-style murder, a man shot kneeling in front of his TV, a video game playing and a child upstairs.  “That’s on your dad’s route,” she says, nodding at my father asleep in his robe on the floor, spread-eagled and with a hole in his longjohns.  The anchor reports on the local campaign to save the old ball stadium and my mother grumbles non-committedly.  Then she falls asleep in her chair, head back, mouth open, her nightly bowl of popcorn half-full and cradled in her lap.

Upstairs, Chris pulls the sheets down the mattress I slept on as a child.  He stares at it, the lumps of spring and cotton pressing upwards underneath the flower-printed linen and asks without looking up how I possibly ever slept on this thing.  I bump the door with my hip until I hear the latch catch and shrug at him.  “I thought it was comfortable,” I say.

At home, we sleep on a five hundred dollar mattress and box spring, a happy co-habitation gift to ourselves after we’d spent our first week together crashing on the floor amid paint cans and balls of used edging tape as we turned our apartment the pale yellow of lemonade.  So when we got the mattress home—after a saga of cross-town trips, bungee cords, twisting staircases, and doorways—we spread new polka dotted sheets down and turned out the light.  But I tossed and rolled and left bed three times for a glass of water.  “What’s wrong with you?” Chris asked, rightfully irritated.  “Nothing,” I said.  “It’s too soft, isn’t it?” he said.  “No,” I said, not lying—it was the best thing I’d ever laid my body on—“It’s just,” I downed the third glass of water, “I sleep on a nicer mattress than my parents.”

Chris sits on his haunches in his sweatpants, then crawls reluctantly into the bed.  It’s too small for him, too short for his giraffe body and he has to lie diagonally to fit.  So I drape my legs over him, make us into a lopsided X on the bed, reach behind me and turn out the light.

In the dark, I think that I can see better the splotches of water damage spreading through the white paint on the ceiling.  The headlights from cars driving up the hill outside trace blue arcs across the walls and I’ve never liked this room.  I’ve never liked the sheet hanging as a curtain in the closet doorway or the baseboards nailed crooked into the drywall.  The fan makes clicking sounds inside its engine.

I feel afraid in this room, these peachy walls where I once pinned concert posters of Fleetwood Mac and Huey Lewis to the flowered wallpaper, the strips of pattern so carefully lined up, to the A-frame ceiling that folds guests so intimately in.  My husband begins snoring gently beside me and I roll him onto his side.  I am too old to be afraid.  There are no ghosts here, just a moneyless, dirty desperation that grips at the throat of some, fierce and relentless, until they pick up a gun or knife with which to beat it off.

It’s been bad since the day Dad was shot.   Only a boy, the police had reported, who’d decided that morning that he was bored, that he was out of options, that he would feel what it felt like to kill.  He walked into the neighborhood and pulled the trigger in the face of the first person he found—the mailman.  He had sawed the shotgun too short, and so the pellets spread wildly, grazing my father’s bald head and searing his ear before tucking themselves snug into the gray siding of a garage.  But such a nice boy, people would say of the shooter.  But not an S.O.B.—a South Omaha Boy—my father would say, the refrain of his convalescence, his return to the living, taking peace in the kid’s cross-town address, as if that made it okay, as if it didn’t mark our neighborhood as the city’s playground for its lost and violent.

I heard one morning, five steady times, a pop pop pop pop pop.  The sound bore me from my sleep into the gray predawn, the time when the cow dust settles silently to the earth.  I rolled to look at Chris and found him already looking at me.  “Fireworks,” he whispered, “Or someone slamming a gate,” I offered back, rolling over and patting his arm as if to say, silly boy, nothing to worry about here.  But downstairs, the snap of the bathroom light switch, the angry snap of the old, stuck toggle: my father waking for work.  I tried to sleep but the glow under the door grew brighter as he flipped on other lights—hallway, kitchen, living room, staircase, where he fumbled around the coat hooks finally for his jacket.

I caught him halfway out the back door.  “I heard gunshots,” I said to his back.  His body jerked in surprise at the sound of my voice, and he turned back into the house, closed the door behind him.  “What?” he said.  I rubbed my face, beginning to burn with embarrassment already, knowing, and stepped in front of the heater vent to keep my legs warm.  “I heard gunshots,” I said again, “I think.”  My mother appeared in the living room in her floral night pants.  “What?” she said also.  “Gunshots?  That was the neighbor’s car, Dan.  Not gunshots.”  She pursed her lips in that way that suggests she’s tolerating stupidity, but barely.  I sat on the couch and my dad came over to pat my back.  “Oh,” he said to my mom, “she’s just worried about me.”  He landed his palm flat on my back a few more times and bent down to kiss me goodbye.  “Well thanks,” he said into my face with sincerity and pity.  Then he left.

My mother came and sat on the couch beside me, at an arm’s distance.  Outside the window, an old Buick popped and rolled down the street and she nodded.  “You’ve got to get over this,” she said.  “I am,” I said.  “You’re not,” she said.  “And we’re not moving.  This is your home, little girl.”  We sat together a few moments longer, both of us pissed and tired.  “I should have never told you about the Pilates class,” I said.

~

In the morning, the hoarse bark of Zeus, the angry chow-chow next door, wakes me up.  Zeus is part lion, tearing raccoons limb from limb and rabbits as they shriek, pinning Gustavo’s Chihuahuas to the ground with his massive teeth.  He nips at Deb, his owner, and winds himself into fits that send her into the house screaming and swearing.  There’s a look on his face, a promise to eat you.  The clock says seven something and I try to fall back asleep, but I hear my parents’ alarm go off, and then the sink and the toilet and the long whistle that issues from the pipes after a flush.  A shade snaps open, then another and another, six times.

A rooster crows.

I’m only a few steps down the staircase when my mom yells, “You heard it!”  She must be watching my feet come down the stairs, watching my body appear from the bottom up.  I stop halfway and sit, looking down into the living room, where the early morning sun pours in through the open windows.

The rooms are bright white like heaven.  The walls are white and the curtains are white and my mother’s hair is white and glowing.  There is so much light.  Six tall windows in this room alone, the selling point when my parents bought it decades ago, dusted over and shining.

The rooster crows again and my mother looks at me expectantly.

I look at her and she says, “It’s a rooster!”

“You bought a rooster?” I say.

“No,” she scoffs at me. “It lives down the street in Mr. Swinarski’s pigeon coop.  And it crows all the time.  Surprise!”  She stretches out her fingers like fireworks and in the kitchen the skillet pops as my dad spoons grease over the eggs and rolls the sausage around the pan.

Mr. Swinarski is dead.  He had serial numbers from his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz tattooed across the backs of his hands and kept homing pigeons that flew to New Jersey and back again in a chicken wire coop against his shed.  “They always come back?” I asked.  “They always come back,” he said.  Even the one, he said, that blew off course and looped around Costa Rica.  Of course, why they came back wasn’t in question.  I felt the answer even then, resting in my leg bones: training and love and fear kept them coming home and sometimes they bonked into our picture window, breaking the afternoon stillness and scaring the dogs.  We scooped them blinking and flapping from the porch and returned them home wrapped in rags marked with bleach and grease.

I look out the window at his house, the peach awnings still sagging over the windows but a different car in the drive.  It is the Buick that pops like a gun.

The rooster crows again.  Chris comes down the stairs and asks if that’s actually a rooster crowing.  “Surprise!” my mom yells again and my dad sets a plate heaped with fried eggs on the table with four forks.

I step outside to hear it better, to feel what it feels like to stand in the city and hear a rooster let loose in the morning sunlight.  I grab the railing of the porch and stretch my body backward like a cat, a move I learned in Pilates class.  The railing is covered in cow dust—everything is covered in cow dust—everything covered with dirt and rainbows, my hands, the green shingles of the roof, the leaves of the maples and the bean vines, the telephone poles tagged anew each weekend, the bells on the gates, and it strikes me this morning that should anyone intrude into this yard, whatever pain they might bring, we would know first, by the tinkling of the bells that it was coming. I look at the car and think that we should have waited to wash it.

It’s Saturday morning and still the slaughterhouse chugs along, making the cows at one end into the packages of meat at the other.

My mom walks out and stands next to me, stares at the car glinting oily in the sun angling through the branches.  “I told you,” she says.  I nod.  “A good surprise though,” I say.  She nods.

Across the alley, Gustavo’s back door squeals open and he emerges sideways carrying an old boombox, inching the door open with his elbow.  He sets it on the sidewalk and waves, then bends to fiddle with the machine.  Music starts and stops: garbled guitars and drumbeats and piano, pieces of noise as he winds the knob through the frequencies.  Suddenly, voices speaking in Spanish come from the speakers and he turns the volume up.  My mother and I stand there, listening.  The music starts and it sounds like polka.  She smiles.  “I like this music,” she says.

Her ears are large and uneven, shiny saucers stuck to the sides of her gray head.  I want to grab them and shake her.  The music is not just polka.  It is a narcocorrido, a drug ballad about power and protest, death and don’t fuck with me.  There is tar in her hair from resealing the driveway this week and she screws up a smile at me.  When she dies, she says cremate her.  Then toss the ashes into the garden and turn her into a cleome.

The music is lovely.  It is wonderful, in fact.  Loud and fast.  Dancing music.  And for the moment, I decide that I don’t care.  I grab my mother’s hands, and we do a quick two-step across the porch.

 


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Suzanne Kehm August 9, 2012 at 10:33 am

Brilliant! Tender, true and funny. Thanks, Dani

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Laurie August 28, 2012 at 10:01 pm

I have been to Omaha many times, but you made me feel like I was just there for the first time. Well done.

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