Lisa Sinnett

Lisa Sinnett

Enjoy our WTP Spotlights, notable selections featuring artists and writers from our Woven Tale Press magazine. To read the issue in full subscribe here.

IN THE WTP SPOTLIGHT: Lisa Sinnett lives in Windsor, Ontario, with her family, across the river from her original hometown of Detroit, MI. She works on her writing with author Ariel Gore and the Literary Kitchen. Selections of her in-progress Detroit memoir have been published in and/or recognized by Hipmamazine, Penduline Press, Glimmer Train, Stealing Time Magazine, and Friends Journal.

The View from Senator Street

From WTP Vol. VII #8

Back when I believed in God, He was Irish Catholic, like me. My family prayed to Him at the dinner table and every night before bed. Our existence from September to June was confined to the leafy, square-mile island of Detroit’s University District: Six Mile to the south, Seven Mile to the north, Livernois to the west, and the Detroit Golf Club to the east. We rarely left our neighborhood, but every summer, me, my mom, Dad, my five sisters, and Faygo the dog piled into the yellow Ford Econoline van with no seatbelts, and drove up Gratiot to the Blue Water Bridge. We escaped the pull of the magnet buried deep in the Detroit River that keeps Detroiters like us from traveling past the city’s northern redlining boundary of Eight Mile and head for Canada.

The popular kids who dominated Catholic grade school were the unfriendly progeny of automobile executives, good Catholic families eating their daily bread and getting rich on account of the Big Three auto companies. My classmates were real Detroiters; they had concrete and metal dreams, backlit by fluorescent light bulbs, bright and unforgiving. The boys ruled the safety patrol, the altar boys and the playground, law and order, right-minded citizens in training. In class, I basked under the watchful eyes of the nuns, but as soon as we escaped their gaze the social order resumed. In gym class, flinty blue eyes passed over me when it was time to pick teams for dodgeball.

“Your shoes are boy shoes.” I didn’t see who hissed the word “boy” like it was a crime. I scraped my blue suede boots against the bleachers until I was the last girl picked, shuffling over to my complaining teammates. There’s no dialogue here, because I never spoke back. I can tell you what the shoes looked like though, their thin suede that was no defense against angry foot stomps: bright blue patches, but mostly grey and flattened, soaked by the icy puddles of Detroit sidewalks. I spent too much time looking at my feet. The slick soles slid across the gym floor—I remember that the popular kids, Black, White and “Mixed” got picked first in some sort of complicated pecking order, while I tried not to let anyone know that I did care what they thought, praying that I didn’t get chosen last.

We were almost that family, the lowest rung of White scraping along in the rich neighborhood, hoping some of that American Dream would rub off on us. We weren’t as poor as the White family that had no furniture. Not as bad as the White family who didn’t have enough food. But almost. The rich White kids were the most cutting, the most vicious. The Black kids were off in their own solar system, going to debutante balls and hanging out with the others whose parents played in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, worked at the medical center or recorded on the Motown label. I’d have given anything to be part of either group. If I’d been brave enough, maybe I would have joined forces with the other pale, freckled kids from Appalachia, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I counted on Jesus to save me.

When I finally graduated and made it into Cass Technical High School in downtown Detroit, a White girl I met at swim practice invited me to her home. I couldn’t believe Lainey wanted to be my friend. Most White kids I had known were richer than we were, and snobby. She was a White girl who was not at private school, talked with a southern drawl, and thought my family was rich. When I was at her house in Southwest Detroit, I felt at home, as if I should live there already. I expected to see my doppelganger, wearing a pair of old Levi’s, white high-tops and a flannel shirt walking up to one of the other red shingle duplexes. I could imagine my parents, sipping a beer on the front porch, playing their instruments and singing folk songs out in the open. If we lived over here, Mom wouldn’t be taking in anyone’s ironing, just so we could stay in the big castle-like house in the University District, and I’d have school friends on my street. Finding Lainey was like stepping backwards through a threshold then out again, and finding the world changed to one where I belonged. Kids played basketball in the middle of the street, weren’t swallowed up inside their houses practicing the piano and studying. When I was little I used to imagine a different world, too. I put mountains and sunshine and clean skies in Detroit. Now, I was more realistic. I wanted a place that would take me in and love me back.

When I took the bus after school past the Ambassador Bridge leading to Canada, past the oil refineries spewing their yellow smoke, to Lainey’s house on the Southwest side, I felt both at home and drawn in by the undercurrent. I don’t think anybody called our family “hillbillies” out loud; we weren’t, not exactly. But the church moms didn’t talk to us. They rejected my mother’s offers of friendship, warm cookies, bread—all wasted labor. We never saw the inside of their homes. There were no invitations extended to join the club of White. In those early days, we were also segregated along race, and I never even saw the inside of my Black friends’ homes, nor they mine. My best friend, a Chicana girl, was forbidden by her doctor father to come to our house. The isolation was terrible.

At home in our castle house, I’d think of any excuse to call Lainey, volunteer to scrub the pots from dinner, so I could tuck the black telephone under my chin, and walk back and forth from the stove to the sink with the coiled phone cord swinging and getting tangled. My hands were immersed in the water, scrubbing at the glued-on onions on the bottom of the soup pot, my eyes drifting to the neighbor’s back porch draped with flowers, the big square brick house. Purple flowers, bright as dew, but no life, no people. Just a velvety quiet. I itched to get over to Lainey’s street.

“So, how’s Beto? Did he call you?” Maybe some boy drama about Beto and his cute friend Jackson. I pictured Lainey on the other end of the line, sitting next to the window on the wobbly kitchen stool, peering down into the alley. Maybe “our boys” were hanging around the back picnic table at the Tastee-Freez, eating chili fries and sneaking cigs.

“Huh?” Lainey’s voice came out slow, as if she couldn’t pronounce consonants.

“Are Beto and Jackson around?”

Beto would sometimes go stand in the alley with Jackson and whistle if he thought Lainey’s Mom or her creepy boyfriend might be home, and he didn’t want to knock on the door. If Lainey thought Beto was in the vicinity, she’d develop a sudden craving for fries and make an excuse to go to the Tastee-Freez and promenade up and down Springwells to check out who’s who, and who’s wearing what and who is with who. Oh, I wanted to be there, on the street where people came out of their houses and talked to each other.

“Soo?” I drew out the question.

“No, I don’t know,” Lainey said. “Raymond’s been acting weird. He’s been snorting coke since yesterday, and keeps saying Mama is cheating on him.”

I pictured her brown eyes wide and worried, her hair puffed out and tangled like it got when her Mom’s boyfriend started using too many drugs. She got too worried to even comb her hair or go to school. Crap.

“You’ll be in school tomorrow, right?” I asked.

“Course,” she breathed. “I gotta go.” She hung up quick.

I knew not to call back. I spent the rest of the evening staring at my World History book and taking notes, listening to my little sister bang on the piano and the hissing of the iron as Mom pressed the neighbor’s laundry.

I didn’t worry about Lainey until she missed morning swim practice. Cities were coming up and she was our best diver. She should be at school. Maybe Lainey did sound strange the night before on the phone, but her Mom’s nasty boyfriend Raymond was scary. I decided to skip and make sure that Lainey and her little sister Tammy, were okay. After morning practice, I hid in the locker room until the security guards, Bonnie and Clyde, cleared the hallways, then ran out the side door, and walked downtown to the Baker bus stop. My friends were my life.

When I got to Senator Street, I could see that Lainey had been waiting for me, watching from the downstairs porch.

“Come up to my room!”

We walked up, with her little sister Tammy tagging along. Noises came from the bedrooms, whimpering. Lainey’s mom and Raymond, I supposed, wrinkling my nose.

Lainey and I kept climbing, up to her attic room. We had painted it all black one day while listening to a Rolling Stones album. A double mattress rested under the front dormer window, behind a curtain and two old ratty couches. Lainey and I climbed on the mattress, cracked the window and lit up two Newport lights.

“You guys shouldn’t smoke,” Tammy said.

“You should go to school,” Lainey said, blowing a smoke ring into Tammy’s face.

“You’re sick.” Tammy coughed. “I’m going to tell Mom.”

Lainey rolled her eyes, and handed Tammy a cigarette. “Just ask, you baby. Don’t front.” Lainey lifted the sheet tacked over the window, and blew out a stream of smoke.

“We haven’t slept all night.” Lainey said. “Ray is completely wired.” Their mom’s boyfriend was crazy-acting without drugs, his big bushy red beard and squinty blue eyes looking like a cross between Wile E Coyote and a serial killer.

“Snorting coke?” I asked.

Lainey nodded. “I think so.”

“Did you call Beto too?”

“Yeah, last night,” Lainey said. “I told Beto if we didn’t make it to school it was because things were getting weird.”

I frowned at Lainey, leaned out the window, and saw Jackson with his backwards baseball cap, and Beto’s taller and bulkier form turn out of the alley and head toward the front porch. I waved my cigarette at them from the attic window, but Beto’s head was turned towards Jackson.

Lainey leaned out the window. “Yo, Beto!”

Beto and Jackson turned and headed for the door.

“They shouldn’t be up on the porch; don’t they know Raymond is down there?” I asked. “Is his little girl down there too?”

“Yeah Mom was watching Jenny. I think. Um. They shouldn’t come. Yeah, yeah, tell them.”

Oh crap. I smelled the weed on Lainey’s hair. She was not thinking at all. I leaned out the window, trying to get the stupid boys to go away before they made things worse.

“Hey Beto!” I shouted.

He climbed the porch stairs without glancing up.

“Jackson!” I waved, trying to get their attention.

The dogs started their barking chorus and we heard Raymond’s indistinct shouting. He hated people coming over. Oh shit. Especially someone like Lainey’s friends.

We tried to shout again to tell the boys to go to the alley. Once Raymond’s dogs were disturbed, there was no telling what Raymond would do. If they would just go away, we could figure out how to slip past Raymond, Lainey’s Mom and little Jenny, and meet the boys in the back. Jackson should know better; his mother was always drinking. But the doorbell was already ringing, and the dogs started going crazy, running back and forth on the upstairs porch, lunging against the rails. The puppies in the side room yelped like babies.

We pounded down the attic stairs, hoping to get all the way to the front door first, before Raymond did something stupid.

“What the fuck!” It was Raymond.

“Chill, Raymond, we’ll get the door,” Lainey said, but Raymond had already turned back to Lainey’s Mom.

“Who’s at the door, Dinah?” he snarled. “One of your boyfriends?” He lurched towards her, fists out. “I know you’re fucking somebody.”

“Wait! Raymond.” Lainey put herself between Raymond and her mother. “I think it’s our boys!”

Raymond tilted his head, looking at Lainey. “What Dinah, you have your brat covering for you?” He shoved Lainey out of the way. “Little bitch,” he added, reaching around Lainey and grabbing her Mom by the hair. “Now why don’t you tell me who your boyfriend is?”  She twisted around, trying to relieve the pressure on her scalp.

Lainey and Tammy got between Raymond and their mom, until he released her.

“Fucking little bitches!” Raymond yelled, punching the wall. He let out a guttural sound somewhere between a growl and a shout. Then he reached behind the couch for something.

I lunged for the phone. He got there first, closed his big hands around the cord and ripped it out of the wall. “Get the fuck out of my business!”

I hadn’t seen what he’d grabbed from behind the couch until just then. He held his rifle up in his fist and shook it at us. “You girls, get in the kitchen now!”

The dogs were still going crazy, but the doorbell had stopped.

Raymond had me by the front of my flannel, his bleeding hand clenched into a fist. He shook me back and forth as he half-dragged me towards the back of the house. “You keep your fucking hands off the phone, little girl. You hear me? Don’t you get cute and try to call the pigs on me.”

The whites of his eyes had a pearly yellow film, spidery and bloodshot. Crude blue and red-inked prison tattoos snaked up and down his muscled arms and circled his neck. A skeleton wearing a cowboy hat and a Confederate flag t-shirt stared at me before Raymond pushed his face up to mine. He shook me one more time. “Stay here,” he growled, then let me go.

I heard his boots clomping down the hallway.

Out the kitchen window, I saw a flicker of movement down the alley, behind the Tastee-Freez. I heard sounds from everywhere: sirens, Raymond and Dinah screaming at each other in the other room. And yet, what I was staring at was the open jar of peanut butter on the counter. I felt ravenous and wanted to eat the whole jar.

Tammy, Lainey, and I stood in the kitchen, not knowing which way to go.

“Oh god!” hissed Tammy under her breath. Her freckles stood out in waxy relief from her pale face. She clutched my arm in panic.

“I think Jackson and them are out in the alley,” I whispered to reassure her. “Maybe they already called 911.” I hoped that Beto and Jackson would do something even better, call a fire truck or an ambulance, because they always came when you called. I hoped they would get help, and not try some heroic rescue mission.

In the relative quiet we heard another sound, one I realized had been there the whole time. “What’s that noise?”

The sound came from the utility room where Raymond kept the breeding pups and his stash.

Tammy stuttered. “Jenny. It’s Jenny!”

Was Raymond’s three-year-old daughter trapped inside? Had she been there the whole time?

Then we heard the little Doberman pinscher puppies barking. And Jenny’s cries turned into shrieks.

We ran to the room.

“Jenny. Honey. Open the door,” I called.

She didn’t stop wailing. Over the dogs barking, she couldn’t hear me. I shook the door handle. It was locked but the door was cheap.

“Jenny!” Tammy stuck her face near the keyhole. “Aunty Tammy is coming!”

The door was papery thin and it started to come apart with a few quick kicks from our vinyl gym shoes. It shredded into long, splintered pieces.

I crawled halfway through and saw the puppies free from their cage. Jenny’s face was pink and shiny, covered in saliva. I reached for Jenny’s tiny red overalls, pulled her through the door, handed her to Tammy. She buried her face in her stepsister’s neck.

“Raymond’s in the living room with Mama!” Lainey half-whispered, half-moaned. Even as she said this, we heard shouting and pounding on the front door. We had to get Jenny away from the dogs, out of the apartment.

“Get out! Go!” Tammy said, heading towards the back door with Jenny curled in her arms.

Lainey and I crept down the long dark hall toward the living room.

Raymond was shouting at whoever pounded at the front door.

Then I heard shots from his rifle. “Hail Mary, full of grace, please help us,” I prayed. I knew Jackson and Beto were crazy enough to try to help.

Across the hall was the linen closet with two wooden white doors and three drawers, just like the one at home. I wanted to crawl inside and come out in my own upstairs hallway. I felt my soul fly up and up, so high that Lainey and I were two pinpoints of light, seen from space. The roof of the house extended out toward the sky, and below stretched Senator Street with its bright tunnel of trees masking the soot-stained two-story house and the evil uncoiling inside. And we were just two girls huddled in shadows, in a darkened hallway.

“Holy Mary, pray for us sinners now,” I said to myself.

I took two steps toward the closet, wrenched open the door and reached in for the iron. I knew it was going to be there. I liked the heft and weight. I imagined smashing it into Raymond’s arm, making him drop his rifle.

“Can you hear Momma?” Lainey whispered. We waited for a long moment, straining to hear. We backed into the bathroom, shutting the door halfway.

At the front of the house, we heard a door smashed open, then heavy footsteps up the stairs into the living room. A commotion of shouts and barking came from the porch, but no more shots.

“Let’s go.” I held the iron above my head like a torch. If I had to I’d get him from the back, split his head in two.

Then we heard scuffling and “Don’t touch me!”

We peeked around the corner. We didn’t expect to see a paramedic sitting next to Lainey’s mom on the couch. A light-skinned Black woman with short, curly hair, held a compress to Dinah’s head.

Lainey’s mom was still wearing an apron from the bar, and she lifted it to wipe her mouth. “Fucking Christ. Who fucking called you people?” She winced in pain and twisted away from the paramedic. “The fuck.”

“Let go of me, you fucking pigs!” Raymond shouted in a coked frenzy, but three Detroit police officers had him pinned.

Lainey and I backed down the hallway as if avoiding broken glass. The kitchen clock showed it was 1:35pm; I should have been in my tenth-grade honors English class, discussing the end of The Lord of the Flies.

I still had the iron in my hand. I set it on the yellow Formica table. “Your mom is fine, let’s get out of here,” I whispered to Lainey. At last real grownups were in the house. Let them handle it, I thought.

Lainey and I melted down the back stairs and around the corner of the house to the side, where Tammy and little Jenny were huddled with Jackson and Beto. Tammy was gripping Beto’s hand, leaning into him.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get away from the house.”

We all joined a crowd gathering, and stood together near the back, away from the house. “It’s fine,” I said. “Your mom’s okay.” Tammy relaxed a little and shifted Jenny to her other arm, dropping Beto’s hand.

“Man, you fucking White people are crazy,” said Beto.

“Hombre, your Dad sure loves his shit!” added Jackson.

“He’s not my Dad,” said Lainey.

“I’m not crazy,” added Tammy.

On the street, two cops shoved Raymond into the back seat of the squad car.

“I guess I’m babysitting again,” said Tammy, looking down at Jenny, then over at their mom, cursing at the cops.

“Motherfuckers! Where are you taking him!” She weaved behind the car as it pulled away, a cigarette dangling from her fat lip, and a black eye blooming, puffy and red. “Dammit!” She pulled off her cracked heel and threw it at the cop car. It landed in the middle of the street, red and glittering.

I turned away so she wouldn’t see me; she’d probably blame me for the ambulance and the police coming, but the number of neighbors who stood around smoking cigarettes and talking in little clumps shielded me from her evil eye. “Oh girl, you should have slapped him!” one thin woman wearing an Aerosmith tank top said to Lainey’s mom and everyone laughed.

Tammy, still clutching at Beto, was replaying the entire scene to a rapt audience of other teens skipping school on a weekday afternoon, and I didn’t think anyone would notice if I disappeared. Maybe I could make it back to school for French class, or even swim practice. It all had happened so fast, like heat lightning that flared up and then went away just as quickly, but when I lit a cigarette, my hand was shaking.

I headed to the bus stop on Springwells and looked down at my light blue student bus card—my escape ticket to downtown, to school, my passport home. My real home was in the castle house in the neighborhood that almost wasn’t Detroit, where three of my sisters had already graduated from high school and moved on. I knew I would graduate too, just as I knew Raymond would be back. Lainey’s mom would let him in again, maybe even that night, maybe the next day.

I leaned my head on the bus window. The autumn sunlight filtered through, casting a glow from another time and place, where attack dogs didn’t lunge through the slats of upstairs porches, where blond-haired translucent little girls didn’t get locked in tiny hot bedrooms, where I wouldn’t hear gunshots and wonder if someone I knew was lying there at Raymond’s feet.

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