Issue 2, Spring 2007


Flight from Detroit
by Gary Beck

Peter was still jittery when he waved goodbye to Beth and the kids at the departure gate for the flight to New York City and got on the plane. It wasn't that he was afraid of flying. He only pretended to be and Beth went along with the charade. He could never admit to himself, let alone to her, that it was separation anxiety. The last glimpse of her caring smile was comforting and that's the way she had been since the night they first met in his junior year at Michigan State University. As the plane waited its turn in the takeoff pattern, he sat back, remembering the memorable evening in 1995 that brought them together. A friend of his had dragged him to a party on the M.S.U. campus. He had been reluctant to go, but Bill kept goading him, threatening public disclosure of his shyness, so he attended, albeit apprehensively. From the moment Beth approached and offered him a drink, he felt an unaccustomed ease in her presence. She was one of the hostesses for her sorority, but somehow she always seemed to have a few minutes to spend with him. Her attention brought out a sense of humor and charm in him that he never displayed before.

It took several weeks until he was able to arrange another meeting with her, but after that Beth took charge of their relationship, a role that came naturally to her. Beth had grown up on a farm near Sault Ste. Marie, a small Michigan town near the Canadian border that was isolated by climate and geography. She was the youngest of five children and her four brothers fled the farm as soon as they were old enough for military service, or college. This left Beth a solitary farmhand from the age of fourteen on, until she graduated from Gerald. R. Ford high school when she was seventeen. M.S.U. meant freedom after the loneliness of the farm and she joined the social whirl and was swept away. Beth was barely five feet tall, but her body was firm from hauling sacks of feed for recalcitrant dairy cows that sometimes had to be shoved into stalls. Her light brown pageboy haircut framed an honest, open face that would light up from her inner glow. Her best feature, her eyes, were deep cups of cocoa that radiated empathy. She wasn't a traditional beauty, but she attracted enough horny males and quickly learned that she didn't want casual sex.

Peter was a refreshing change from the urgent demands that most of Beth's dates presented. When she discovered that Peter only had two hands, rather than the normal four appendages of the heavy breathers, she decided that he was the right man for her. Peter had grown up in a tiny, backwater town near East Lansing, with the non-glittering prospects of working in the local diner or 7-11. The traditional way out was sports or brains and Peter just managed enough smarts to escape a dreary existence. He detested contact sports, but kept reasonably fit by jogging. He was tall and thin, with dark hair and pale skin. His features were neat and well-formed, but he eluded handsomeness because of his lack of confidence. His innate shyness made him seem drab and he was virtually invisible to women seeking candidates for the mating ritual. Beth was the first woman to take an interest in him since the days of clumsy high school fumblings that had always ended awkwardly.

When Beth's friends noticed that they had become an item they denigrated her choice, insisting she could do better. They didn't understand that she felt comfortable with him. When they babbled about passion and wild sex, she smiled serenely, content with the warm satisfaction she felt with him and ignored their teasing. No matter how much they pressured her, they couldn't change her mind. After a while, they took Beth's relationship for granted and let her go her own way. Peter's few friends demanded intimate sexual confessions that embarrassed him and he refused to answer. They pressed him for sizzling sexual details about Beth, but his constant refusal to speak made them forget about him. So Beth and Peter's relationship started with a strong character commitment and they gradually discovered their need for each other. Amid the clamor and energy of campus life, they found a quiet companionship that was very fulfilling.

Beth's sorority house roommate, Teri, was her complete opposite. Teri spent hours on personal grooming and always wore sophisticated make-up. Shopping was her number one activity and attracting men ran a close second. She was fastidious in dress and appearance, but her side of the room invited porcine visitors to feel at home. She was blonde, blue-eyed, soft-fleshed and sexy, with her tough nature concealed behind an innocent mask. Men flocked to her and clashed horns for her favor, but she always controlled the situation without letting the lusting males know that they were being manipulated. Beth admired the way that Teri handled people and appreciated that she didn't try to influence her to drop Peter. The only thing about Teri that irritated her was that she never seemed to study, yet she always got high marks. Despite that quirk, they got along exceptionally well.

Peter shared a dorm room with three jock wannabes. The wannabes played touch football, wrestled, punched, shoved, belched, blared gangsta rap music, swilled beer, filled the room with pot fumes and frequently puked before reaching the bathroom. A housing shortage left Peter marooned with the troglodytes until another room became available. He followed students on campus, assessing their health, seeking signs of an imminent stroke or terminal illness that would mean a vacant bed. He developed fantasies about murdering someone to inherit his bed, until the festering morbidity alarmed him and he focused his imagination on his roommates. He devised all kinds of scenarios that would bring about their demise and lead to his tranquil occupation of the bedlam room. His favorite was a fatal car crash that killed two of them and left Chet, the most obnoxious of the three, in a permanent coma. They had no idea that he was secretly dreaming diabolical plots that would end their residence. He spun a cocoon in his small corner that even the frequent trespasses couldn't penetrate.

Beth and Peter spent as much time together as they could contrive, since men weren't allowed in the sorority house, except at approved parties. It was inconceivable to bring Beth to the chamber of schmutz inhabited by his roommates. They found meeting places in the cafeteria and library, but their favorite spot was in one of the theater department's experimental black box spaces. It was in use almost every night and they sat in a dark corner in the last row, whispering urgently about whatever came into their heads, then kissing and touching tentatively. Everyone in the theater department took their presence for granted and the only time their delicious haven was unavailable was when it was closed for holidays. Most of the students went home for Christmas and Easter, and blessed event, so did Peter's anthropoid roommates. The privacy didn't change their behavior, it just allowed the gradual exploration of lovemaking to go a little further. At the end of spring break, the return of the pestilential primates was particularly disturbing. The blossoming lovers finally discovered frustration.

Beth and Peter went home for the summer, since they couldn't afford to stay on campus. They phoned each other regularly, until thrifty parents limited their calls. They exchanged long letters and wrote things that they had never dared say in person. The months dragged like a millennia in their impatience for fall. Their parents were sick of their absent-mindedness when they finally waved goodbye to their irritating children at the bus depot. Absence had not only made the heart grow fonder, but it also shattered barriers that had made them cautious of opening to someone else. They both got to campus the same day and they looked for each other for hours. They just missed each other at the sorority house and the registration office, and they left messages all over campus that went unanswered. Peter was beginning to despair when he saw her at a distance near the library. He yelled her name; she saw him and they ran to each other, hugged breathlessly, then babbled about where they had looked. The anguish of separation was over.

Peter's roommates hadn't returned and the new replacements were nervous freshman, who deferred to his seniority. In the boldest action of his life, Peter established room rules, which included the newcomers spending several evenings out each week until their sophomore year. The unexpected privacy was delightful. They found new security in each other and began to make plans for the future. Beth was a music major and her greatest dream was to give recitals, but she didn't expect to earn a living as a concert pianist. Her minimal childhood training, sporadic lessons from a farm-wearied mother and insufficient practice time on the yellowed keys of the peeling black upright, because of too many farm chores, doomed a recital career. She had refused to be discouraged by various music teachers in high school, who took pleasure in telling her "Too little, too late." College was music heaven. She enjoyed practice every day and made a long term music plan to develop several concert programs over a five year period. She accepted that she wouldn't play Carnegie Hall, but there were other places. Always practical, she decided to teach music for a livelihood.

Peter was a speech and communications major and wanted to work in broadcast radio. He was too unsure of himself to risk the nerve-racking exposure of television, but the anonymity of radio meant safety. In his early teens, in the privacy of his room, he made up little plays and stories that he read aloud to his discarded action figures. He wasn't bold enough to try out for the drama club in high school. The thought of going on stage terrified him. In college, when he discovered that radio still thrived, he got involved with the university FM station and this led to a career choice. Music and broadcasting had enough affinity to make Beth and Peter feel closer. They discussed endless permutations that would let them stay together after they finished their senior year. The biggest concern was that they might not find jobs near each other, so they decided that Detroit, despite its intimidating reputation, offered the best opportunities. They drew up long lists of what they wanted and how they would live, avoiding the subject of marriage. They were so happy with each other that they didn't worry about the future.

Beth's steadiness of character kept Peter applied to his studies when he drifted into a dreamy state of idleness. She stabilized his insecurity and they both benefited from it. As graduation approached, Beth realized that their relationship would have to be resolved, or they would have to go home to their parents for the summer. The prospects of living with Mom and Dad instead of each other resulted in instant engagement. The day after graduation, their families and friends attended the small wedding in the university chapel. Beth and Peter honeymooned for three unluxurious days in a decayed, rustic cottage on Drummond Island, which wasn't too far from her home town. It was much too cold to swim, but they took long walks in the woods, made love and enjoyed playing house.

The newlyweds returned to the campus and moved into Peter's room that he was entitled to occupy for another two weeks. They started an immediate job hunt and apartment search in Detroit. Peter was offered a position with the public radio station writing filler items and subbing for the newscasters, which he eagerly accepted. He had been fortunate enough to apply at a time when the station had reached its tolerance limit with has-been broadcasters who looked down on public radio. The fresh face approach overcame all objections to his youth. Even Beth was impressed by his munificent salary of $24,000, plus benefits that provided a family health plan and two weeks paid vacation. Beth felt lucky to get a teaching job in the music department of Martin Luther King high school, even though it was in the inner city and it wouldn't start until September, which was three months away. When Peter was requested to start work immediately, they moved into an inexpensive Detroit rooming house that included breakfast and dinner in the weekly rental.

Mrs. Barzuska's guest residence had fallen on hard times. The Victorian house of the seven gables once had pretensions to grandeur, but urban decay and white flight had abandoned it to slow decline. It was improbable that Mrs. Barzuska had ever occupied a niche of any social stature, but she acted as if she was presiding over an elegant salon. The fact that most of her lodgers were down at the heels working people didn't deter her in the least. She was a stout woman, 65 years old, with a florid complexion that was framed by dyed red hair that looked like a fright wig. She had large, flabby arms and thick peasant legs that were exposed by her wearing short sleeve gingham dresses from another era. She always wore nylon stockings and high heeled shoes, even when she went out in the cold and snow. She had some kind of Balkan accent and spoke slowly in an attempt to conceal it. When she found out that Beth was a musician, she constantly urged her to play after dinner, despite the complete lack of interest from their fellow lodgers.

This was Beth and Peter's first exposure to the big bad city and they were both shocked to the core at the manic contrasts of great wealth and extreme poverty. They bought a used Ford from a departing lodger and began to explore the urban nightmare. With only a few exceptions, the lines were sharply drawn between the haves and have nots. Although their only references were from the movies, they wondered at the multi-million dollar houses in protected enclaves, and the debilitating grind of public housing on the poor. They found it hard to believe that privilege and deprivation could exist side by side and not explode into class warfare. It was easy for them to understand why past race riots had periodically erupted in violence, arson, and looting. They concluded that only a strong police presence must have confined the rioters to poverty communities, where they could only vent their rage on their own neighborhoods.

Beth and Peter quickly discovered that they couldn't afford the rentals in nicer areas. When Beth found a four room apartment in a three family house, despite it being in a marginal neighborhood, they eagerly signed a two year lease. The prospect of a nest of their own was exciting. They promptly gave notice to Mrs. Barzuska, who was disappointed at losing her cultural attaché, but wished them luck. They moved on July 1, and set about making their new apartment habitable. Beth took charge and found only slightly used furnishings for the living room and dining room/kitchen. She wouldn't consider anything but a new bed and that was their most expensive purchase. They installed Peter's computer and television set, her CD player and they had all the basics of domestic life. When Peter surprised her by having a rental piano delivered, she felt the bonds between them grow stronger as they settled into married life.

Peter would leave for the radio station at eight AM and Beth would job hunt until early afternoon. After the unsuccessful effort she would go home, practice the piano for two or three hours, then make dinner. She tried not to become frustrated at not finding a job, since she didn't have high business skills and couldn't risk damage to her hands as a typist, or at a fast food place. About two weeks after they moved in there was a knock on the door and it was her downstairs neighbor. "Hi. I'm Millie Schwenka. I've been meaning to stop by and welcome you, but I wanted to give you a little time to get used to the place." "Thanks. I'm Beth Harmon. Come on in. Would you like a cup of coffee?" "Another time. I want to talk to you about your piano playing." Beth felt a pang of alarm. "Is it bothering you? I can play quietly." Millie laughed. "Not at all. I've been thinking about piano lessons for my daughter. Do you teach?" "Oh, yes," Beth said with relief.

Within two weeks she had two more students, as word spread through the neighborhood. She had no idea what to charge and asked for $10.00 an hour. Apparently it was very reasonable, for she soon had four more students and all of them came twice a week. It wasn't a lot of money, but it eased her financial worry and made her feel like an active contributor to the household. There were good prospects for more students and she savored the sense of independence that earning an income fostered. With a job in the fall and the apartment functional, Beth concentrated on preparing a recital program. She started with some Chopin études, which would be her audition pieces, if a concert hall would consider booking her. She knew the possibilities of a booking for an unknown pianist were improbable, so she began to put aside money each week that would pay for rental of a recital space, programs and any personnel needed for the evening. She was just mastering the second étude when she learned she was pregnant.

Peter was thrilled yet terrified at the prospect of a child. Beth reassured her number one baby and concealed her distress at the disruption of her concert plans. Once school started, her schedule was so demanding that after nine to three with students who only wanted hip-hop, then her neighborhood students in the afternoons, she was generally too tired to practice. Their treacherous car, trained by a diabolical Ford lackey to devour cash in ongoing repairs, and preparations for the birth of the baby, consumed her meager savings. They managed to pay their bills, but there was no money for a concert. Two weeks before the end of the fall semester, the chairman of the music department informed her that the music instructors would perform in a student/teacher concert. She was requested to accompany the students for Christmas carols and play a solo piece. Her protests of insufficient preparation time were ignored, so she dusted off the neglected Chopin. Peter proudly attended, sitting in the rear of the auditorium, applauding enthusiastically. Everyone enjoyed the carols. Halfway through the étude, which she was playing credibly, she felt the audiences lack of interest and segued into a Scott Joplin rag that rocked the somnolent house. Her debut at Martin Luther King high school was a smash hit.

Winter was particularly harsh that year, Peter had adjusted his schedule at the radio station so he could take care of the baby, while Beth could finish the school semester. When he came home at night they only had a few hours until Beth had to go to sleep, but the comfort of the snug nest and the joys of the hatchling were wonderful. It was hard for them to believe that they had found happiness without more of a struggle, but they gladly accepted it. Their way of life would have been very satisfying, except for their economic worries. The baby's expenses were cheerfully dealt with. The diabolical Ford machine was another story. One week it was new shock absorbers, the next it was the tires, followed a few weeks later by brakes and radiator. It always seemed to be something that required expensive replacement, rather than simple adjustment. Peter would rant and rave about the fiends at Ford who designed a car to malfunction just to plague him and almost work himself into a frenzy. Beth would pacify baby number one and peace would prevail, until the car broke down again.

Beth coaxed Peter through all their tribulations and they watched Jennifer grow from an adorable infant into a demanding person. Jennifer had started parent training with yowls, howls, coos and gurgles. The innovation of ambulatory arms and legs allowed gesturing and pointing. But she started talking and commanding simultaneously. Jennifer and Peter clashed on the battlefield of wills and Peter was vanquished. He obeyed his domineering daughter's every whim. He was shocked when Beth teasingly called him 'pussy whipped', and offered puny excuses and limp rationalizations to explain his attitude, but they both knew he was enslaved. By the time Jennifer was two, she ruthlessly controlled her daddy. Beth never tolerated her daughter's unreasonable demands, or misbehavior and they quickly reached an understanding. Peter, who had developed emotional postures to get him through school, work and relationships, was completely unprepared for the demands of a child. He had no idea how to deal with her and Jennifer took full advantage of every opportunity. She ruled him with a fist of iron and no matter how much he squirmed or protested, he always gave in. Fortunately, Beth maintained a fair balance and protected an endangered species: daddy sapiens.

Peter had arranged his vacation schedule to start right after the school year. They rented a small cottage on Drummond Island, which they remembered fondly from their honeymoon, and roughed it for two fun weeks. Except for Peter's poison ivy, Jennifer's attempts to conquer the lake whenever their backs were turned and snake scares, it was a delightful interlude. They returned to the voracious city that devoured its citizens in its industrial jaws, refreshed and ready to improve their existence. Peter got a small raise and began announcing the evening news from six to ten. Beth tried harder to accept the horrors at school: drug abuse, gang violence, teen pregnancy, more than half the students dropping out and the terrible waste of young people, many of whom could have contributed to our implacable society. She stopped sending memos to the principal requesting AIDS and pregnancy prevention classes. She stopped pestering the music department chairman to drop some of the banal classics from the curriculum that bored her as much as the students. He tactfully ignored her parting comment: "If I have to listen to 'The Flight of the Bumble Bee' one more time…" But she continued counseling any of her students who she could reach personally and that kept her going for the year.
The summer of funerals started with the death of Beth's parents. They were driving home from the movies one evening when they were forced off the road by a drunk driver, who didn't bother to stop. Their car rolled, crashed into a tree and the impact crushed her dad's chest on the steering wheel. Her mother went through the windshield and the glass severed an artery. She bled to death before help arrived. Beth had put her parents in an emotional niche that she intended to deal with someday. The shock of their unexpected deaths reminded her of the fragility of things and she resolved not to neglect her feelings for Peter. She saw her brothers, their wives and children for the first time in years. She went through all the rituals of grief with them, but they were a family of strangers, brought together for a moment by dread death, then gone, hardly touching, long removed from the bond of caring. Beth was glad to get back to the city of indifference that was never concerned with its citizen's feelings.

They were just getting back to their daily routine, when Peter's father died of a heart attack. He was only fifty seven and he continued a family curse. His father and brothers suffered fatal heart attacks before they reached sixty. Peter was torn between a sense of loss and panic that he would die young. Beth couldn't shake him out of his mood and he moped during most of the drive. He perked up when they got to East Lansing. "Let's visit M.S.U. on the way back." "Anything to get you out of this funk," Beth said. The torrenting rain at the small cemetery cut the ceremony short. There were only a handful of people and Peter's mother was remote from the few sympathizers, already receding from this bewildering life. They stayed overnight, then made their farewells to the fading woman. Peter promised to come back and dispose of his father's things. When they got to the campus it seemed smaller and sterile. They felt absolutely no nostalgia.

Back in Detroit they waited for the next tragedy. Their apprehensions were realized when Peter's mother, in a state of depression, took an overdose of sleeping pills and quietly resigned from this untranquil life. His parent's shabby possessions were discarded, except for a few old photographs and they thought the procession of death was over. Then Peter's only friend, Bill, who had introduced him to Beth in college, was stabbed to death in a mugging on a Detroit street. They attended Bill's funeral, wondering who would be next and Peter brooded morbidly that it would be him. It took a while for him to get over the last loss. Beth's steady support and the need to monitor Jennifer's every move kept him functional. What brought him back to wellbeing was Beth's announcing that she was pregnant again. The idea of continuity through their children seemed to soothe his troubled spirit and his appreciation of life improved dramatically.
The birth of their son Andrew in the spring of 1998 distracted them from the growing problems in the neighborhood, but not for long. Disputes between rival gangs invaded their once safe street. Drive-by shootings by dissatisfied customers of the drug dealers who were trying to open new markets occurred more often. The polluters who accompany drugs: pimps, prostitutes, muggers, gang-bangers, apprentices of evil, and all the other violent despoilers spilled their filth on another city sanctuary. The police and politicians were unwilling to battle the tide of crime. Community activists were assaulted and intimidated. Decent black and white families, unable to endure the decay of their neighborhood, began to move. Government services diminished. Houses deteriorated. Streetlights were broken and not repaired. Garbage overflowed into the street for grateful rats. Urban blight spread and as the year ended darkness spread across the land of the working poor.

Several confrontations with 'Big M' and his crew convinced Beth and Peter that it was time to move. Their downstairs neighbor, Millie Schwenka, who had became Beth's good friend, packed her family and moved after a gang member attempted to molest her eleven year old daughter. Other good neighbors, including most of Beth's piano pupils, felt threatened and moved. Beth and Peter searched frantically for an apartment in an acceptable neighborhood, but they couldn't find anything affordable. Finally, in desperation, when they no longer felt safe going in or out of their building, they moved back to Mrs. Barzuska's rooming house. She was delighted to welcome them back and rapidly became a doting, grandmother-like figure to the children. Beth, of course, was immediately re-recruited for the entertainment committee and Mrs. Barzuska generously had the piano tuned. The only benefit for Beth after losing her pupils was that she now had time to practice.

They took over a connecting room for the children, but it was still cramped, even though most of their things were in storage. Mrs. Barzuska went out of her way to make them feel at home and they were comfortable enough, despite living on top of each other. They had no luck in finding another apartment, but Beth was able to convince Peter to make the most of their circumstances. The neighborhood was secure, they could get to work easily and they didn't worry about going for a walk with the children. More than a year went by without their having a definite plan for the future. They were never able to save money, but they were happy. Jennifer celebrated her fourth birthday and soon after Andrew was two years old. The rapid growth of the children astonished Peter and he brooded about how to improve his family's way of life. He discussed his concerns with Beth and they decided to implement a weekly savings plan to amass enough money for an apartment. They started with the best intentions, but the children always needed something and unexpected expenses occurred. Then they received devastating news. At the end of the school year, Beth was informed that due to budget constraints, the music program would be cut back and she would be out of a job.

As the year 2000 approached, Beth and Peter didn't pay much attention to the Y2K panic. They weren't in debt, but they couldn't improve their financial situation. They considered taking out a loan to pay for an apartment, but they were reluctant to risk the liability. Their best hope was that Beth would get a teaching job in another school, but that was uncertain. They had a quiet new year's eve celebration that didn't include the end of the world. Then they received the final blow to their domestic stability. The public radio station was unable to raise enough funds for their next fiscal year, which would start September 1st. They concluded that they would have to let some employees go according to seniority and Peter was among those selected for dismissal. He would be employed until August 31st, but after that his position would be officially terminated. The other to-be-discharged employees were as upset as he was and demanded that management retain them. This was refused, but in the ensuing discussion, management agreed to let them cash in their vacation pay and to provide medical coverage until November 30th.

Beth and Peter's situation, which had been difficult, was now approaching a crisis. The only job that Beth was offered was playing piano for strippers at a seedy nightclub. She took one look at the joint and left. She got a temporary gig playing for the lunchtime crowd at a bank, but that only lasted a few weeks. She put posters up in the neighborhood advertising for pupils, but she didn't get any responses. Peter applied for corporate jobs in sales and publicity, but was told he didn't have the 'right drive' for the job. He registered with several employment agencies, but they were unable to place him. Mrs. Barzuska was aware of their problems and stopped charging them rent. Their only expenses were food and miscellaneous, so they were able to manage for a while, once his job ended. He started inquiring at the nearby supermarket and nearby chain stores for an assistant manager or trainee position, with no success. He was either over or under qualified.

Peter was getting discouraged and the prospect of working in a fast food place flipping burgers was depressing him. Beth tried to make him see the bright side of things; the children were a treasure and they had their health, but he was moody, lethargic and withdrawn. She wasn't sure how to deal with him, when help unexpectedly arrived. One of the executives at the radio station, with more of a conscience than the unconcerned types of the corporate world, sent Peter a notice of positions available at the public radio station in Washington, D.C. and New York City. He stirred from his torpor, sent out his resume and spun pleasant fantasies about life in Washington, D.C, his city of choice. He actually printed out maps of the city on the internet and prepared itineraries to the notable monuments. When he didn't hear from the station right away, he began to sink back into apathy. A month went by and he got a letter of rejection from Washington, D.C., but before he could really dissolve into depression, he was hired by the New York City public radio station. They couldn't afford to travel as a family and then stay at a hotel until they found someplace to live, so they decided that Peter would go ahead alone and find an apartment for them.

Peter stared out the window as the plane leveled off at 35,000 feet. He was torn between fear of leaving the security of Beth and the children, and the intimidating world of New York City, which he would face alone. He started to shake uncontrollably, but a solicitous voice yanked him out of his self-pity. "Do you want a blanket sir? I know how cold it gets when the air is turned up high." The kindly face of a mature flight attendant looked down on him, and he managed to reply: "Thanks, miss." As she walked away, tending to other passengers, he heaved a sigh of relief that she wasn't a glamorous young sexpot, who might have sneered at his discomfort. He put his head back and tried to think about what he'd do when he arrived. He couldn't concentrate and all sorts of threatening images of the big city flashed through his mind, until he fell into a protective sleep.