An excerpt from the novel, Detroit Muscle.
Beyond the cracked parking lot and cyclone fencing, and down the slope rippling with big bluestem and switchgrass, the Walter P. Reuther Freeway drones with four lanes of westward five o’clock traffic escaping Detroit. An older model Mustang merges onto the interstate from the Orchard Lake Road onramp. Giving it gas, its driver veers in front of other cars, threading a path through the tight configuration. Whole lanes slow with the chain effect of sudden braking. Other drivers signal to switch lanes. They are honked at unforgivingly. The flow backs up to a lurching crawl. The freeway flashes red with the dominoing of taillights.
Robby stands outside an apartment door and watches the Mustang racing unapologetically toward I-696’s merger with I-96. The overcast sky threatens rain. Looking at the marbled cloud cover stretched gray to the horizon, Robby scratches feverishly at his upper arm. A raggedy-looking robin lands on top of the cyclone fence. Just as suddenly, it flies away. Robby’s green eyes follow it until it’s out of sight. He then looks down at the address on the scrap of paper trembling in his hand. The Mustang’s waning dual exhaust thunders faintly in the western distance. Robby checks that the number on the paper matches the number on the apartment door. He checks it again. Finger-combing his bangs away from his face, he tucks the longer strands of brown behind his ear. A swatch of hair near his temple is prematurely grey. He inhales a long breath through his nose and looks up into the rusted underside of the second floor walkway. Drying his palms against his jeans, he looks behind him and then looks to the door again. The growl of the Mustang is gone. The freeway is an angry red of brake lights. Exhaling a sigh between his teeth, Robby knocks.
A young, blonde woman opens the door. Her face blanches at the sight of him.
He looks down and his hair falls across his face. He sweeps it aside again. His smile is tight-lipped. “Hi, Tif,” he says softly, glancing at her rounded abdomen.
She looks at him as though he is an apparition that might disappear, that hopefully will. She wears a long, blue maternity dress. Her hair is pulled back from her slender face in a ponytail. Her eyes are almond brown. “You shouldn’t have come here,” she says. “You should have called.” Her hand goes to the door, moving as though to close it. “Who gave you the address, anyway?”
“Your mom.” He shrugs, looking down at her sandals and the red polish flaking from her toenails. “She said it was good that I come see you face to face.”
Tiffany exhales a scornful little laugh through her nose and shakes her head. “She was wrong.”
Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he hunches his shoulders towards his ears. He looks at her. “I just wanted to talk.”
“I really don’t think we have anything to talk about.” She crosses her arms between her belly and breasts. “I don’t expect anything from you if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried...” He shrugs again. “I just thought that we could talk.”
Rain begins to fall, dinging off the hoods of the cars behind him. He looks toward the noise and then back at her.
Tiffany hugs her arms tighter against her. She glances out at the rain and then back at him. “Is this something you have to do for your program? Are you supposed to talk to people that you might have—”
He shakes his head. “No, I’m not here because—”
“Because I’m not hurt or mad at you, not anymore. That night was a mistake, but it’s done. It happened.” Her hand goes to her belly and rubs gentle circles. “I really don’t expect anything from you or want anything. You’ve got your own problems. This one’s mine…and it’s not even a problem, okay? I’m fine.”
Robby looks over his shoulder at the water suddenly sheeting down over the cars and asphalt. He looks back at her. “We can’t even just talk… just for a minute?” he says, raising his voice above the racket of the downpour.
She studies his face. “You’re tan.”
He nods. “I guess.”
“That place was in Florida, wasn’t it?”
“It was a cold winter here.” She shakes her head. “Almost seems like you were being rewarded.”
“It wasn’t a picnic.”
She says nothing. The left side of her mouth nicks up into a disbelieving, mean smile.
He shivers. “Can we, though? Can we just talk?”
“Aren’t we talking now?”
She combs her fingers into her hair, squeezing her palms against the side of her head. “What, then? What do you want to say?”
The water slashes in at an angle, soaking his hoodie. He looks at her and his bangs fall across his face again. He shrugs his hands at her. “Do you think I could come in?”
The static hiss of the rain soundtracks a frozen moment between them.
Tiffany sighs and then steps back, opening the door wider. “I don’t have much time. I need to get ready. I’m covering for someone at work this afternoon.” When he doesn’t move, she motions with her hand, gesturing him inside with her fingers in a movement that might be used to swat away a mosquito. “Come on. Just don’t plan to stay long.”
About the Author
Jeff Vande Zande
In his new novel, Detroit Muscle, author Jeff Vande Zande writes the story of Robby Cooper, a recovering Oxycontin addict who must return to Michigan to begin to put some kind of life together. He struggles to make amends with those that he has hurt with his addiction while trying to stay one step ahead of those to whom he still owes money. Things only begin to change for him once he agrees to a road trip across Michigan with his grandfather in a reconditioned ’68 Firebird.
Jeff teaches fiction writing and screenwriting at Delta College. His books of fiction include, Emergency Stopping and Other Stories, Into the Desperate Country, Landscape with Fragmented Figures, and Threatened Species and Other Stories (Whistling Shade Press). His novel, American Poet, won the Stuart and Vernice Gross Award for Excellence in Writing by a Michigan Author and a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan.
Cover Image: Hanging in there [Detail edit by K+S] / 2012 / Ann Fisher / CC via Flickr