Chapter 1: Meet the New Punk, Same as the Old Punk
The city of Detroit, like most everything in life, was not immune to change. Despite years of decay and neglect, it was slowly reentering the world, much like a wilted flower after a long drought. The signs were subtle, easily missed by people not looking for them, but for the orphans of Desolation Row, it was unavoidable. Change was everywhere.
“More lumberjacks!” a voice called from just inside the door of Squirrel’s office. Squirrel, wearing his customary black bowler hat with white feather in its side, brown paisley-patterned vest, white V-neck shirt, suspenders, red bowtie, and gray trousers with a number of paint brushes poking out from his back pocket, paused in his work. His brush, heavy with paint, only a few inches from the canvas. He was about to respond, but Rosie, decked out in its black PPSP-Douglas-Street-Affiliation vest, began to bark.
“Easy boy,” Squirrel said. Rosie quieted with a whimper and then placed its face on its paws. “Come again, Muscles?”
“Those darn lumberjacks are loitering the streets again.” Muscles, standing tall and skinny as a string bean, adjusted the can of sardines on his lean left arm and then resumed curling a 20-pound bag of potatoes. “They sure look funny with their trendy haircuts, big beards, checkered shirts, and tight-fitting pants. Who wears winter hats in warm weather anyway? Ray Charles swears he saw one with a mustache longer than a ruler. They could be up to no good.”
“Hmm, that’s jacked up,” Squirrel said. “Have Toaster keep a—”
“You called, sir?” Toaster appeared in the frame of the open window, his face awash in red-bricked face paint that matched the outside walls of the Row. Rosie jumped up, ready to pounce, a growl forming on its lips.
“Um . . . right. Muscles reported more lumberjacks in the neighborhood. We need you to K-Double-E. It’s for The Cause. Think you can handle it?”
“Right, Keep an Eye on ‘Em. Will do, sir.”
Toaster disappeared from the window. Rosie placed its face back on its paws. Squirrel turned to Muscles. “Will there be anything else?”
“No, sir. That’s all. I have to report to the dump and find some new tractor tires for the upcoming Orphan Olympics. The men are pretty excited for it.”
The first ever Orphan Olympics was the brainchild of Demmie, Squirrel’s girlfriend of one year, who thought what better way to raise orphan morale than by having a friendly competition of the mind, body, and spirit. Some of the more popular events included the tire toss, the Faygo chug, the chili-dog eating contest (Seafood was favorited to win by a large margin), the bear crawl, the burp off, the long distance spit, the thumb war, bloody knuckles, potato gun target practice, the Four-Doberman (Rabies, Sick Boy, Snaggle Tooth, and Sir Barks a Lot) chase, and the roshambo, best two out of three. The Wiz calculated it had a 99.98—repeating of course—percent chance of being a success.
“Right, carry on and Hemingway speed, Muscles.”
“Hemingway speed, sir!”
Squirrel turned back to his canvas, his paint brush at the ready. He had managed just one paint stroke when a knock caused him to pause.
“Yes, Scissors. How may I be of assistance?”
“Faygo, sir.” Scissors looked up from his clipboard. His big afro was petite as ever, still perfectly round. “He’s complaining of severe caffeine withdrawals ever since we ran out of his favorite pop. Said it could be fatal.”
“Hmm. Give him a mason jar of Vernors on the rocks. That should take care of it. On second thought, make that a double Vernors on the rocks.”
“Right, sir.” Scissors made a note on his clipboard. “The Ace of Spades got too close to Knuckles’s crib again. Little one got him right across the nose. Now The Ace is in the infirmary, spewing red-colored ribbon all over the place.”
“Hmm. Give The Ace a Vernors on the rocks as well. Should help with the pain. We need to get Knuckles some little boxing gloves, otherwise he’s apt to hurt someone. Perhaps have Big Mama stitch him a pair.”
“Great idea, sir. I’ll get right on it.”
“How is Chopsticks? Is he ready for the big day?”
“As ready as can be. The last I seen of him he was cursing in Korean and banging his wooden spoon against something. I guess someone was in his kitchen, misplacing items all over the place. I don’t know how the kitchen will ever run without him.”
“Problem for another day, Scissors.”
“Right, sir. We have one other matter to attend to. It’s Seafood, sir.”
“What now? Did he raid the pantry again?”
“No, the freezer this time, sir. He’s in a Moomer coma, passed out in the middle of the rec room. Incriminating evidence includes two large spoons, multiple stains on his shirt, an ice cream smile on his face, and I found four empty gallon-sized buckets next to him. Very Cherry, Raspberry Cheesecake, Mint Chocolate Chip, and Creamsicle. All to be used for today’s festivities. Now we are up a party without a dessert.”
“Son-of-a-Hemingway. Think we can tap into the Treasury to buy some more?”
“Sure thing. The Wiz says we have enough bottles and cans and scrap copper metal to survive the next Depression. Should I tell him it’s for The Cause?”
“Of course. Make it an N-Double-C.”
“Right, sir. Necessary Cost for The Cause.”
“And deduct five marks from Seafood. This kind of transgression can’t go unpunished.”
“Of course. That will bring his total to -132 marks. I don’t think he’ll ever learn, sir. I’m afraid he’s due for a comeuppance.”
“Possibly, but way we’ll keep trying. ‘There is nothing impossible to him who will try.’”
“No, Alexander the Great. Will there be anything else, Scissors?”
“No, sir. That’s all. I’ll let you return to your work.”
Squirrel dipped his brush in paint and raised it to the canvas. After spending the better part of the year returning the Row to its former glory—repainting all the walls that had been whitewashed by Major Balls and the Triad of Terror—Squirrel was finally free to paint for leisure. He had managed just one stroke when a sensation that he was being watched caused him to turn around. A shadow stood just inside the door. Rosie jumped up, ready to spring.
“I had a feeling someone was standing there,” Squirrel said, lowering his paintbrush.
“A word, sir.” The Wiz, with his hair standing up as if touched by static electricity, adjusted his large glasses and pulled a calculator from his lab coat. The tail of a large rat recoiled and retreated to the depths of his pocket.
“I’m happy to report some serious developments in my latest project related to The Wire. Within a few short months we could be connected to not only neighboring states, but globally as well. We have a 96.44—repeating of course—percent chance of never having to use a dumpster chicken carrier again. I just need some more parts from the dump.”
“I take it you need more men?”
“Yes, as many as you can spare, sir.”
“Hmm. You say it pertains to The Wire?”
“Yes, and The Cause too, of course.”
“Very well then. Take Crash, Mike Tyson, and Duct Tape. Tell ‘em it’s f—”
“Yes. The Cause, of course.”
“Will there be anything else?”
There wasn’t an answer. The Wiz had left without saying a word. Squirrel shrugged his shoulders and then attempted to resume painting, but the sound of something crashing caused him to turn around. Rosie barked, spun in a circle, and then took shelter between Squirrel’s legs.
“Who in the Hemingway moved that stupid plant? It wasn’t there yesterday.”
Ray Charles stood with his hands on his hips, a flustered look on his face. He wore a new, shiny black leather jacket, the collars raised up like he was at a frat party. At his feet was a spilled plant pot. Black dirt was spread everywhere as if tossed with a shovel. Ray Charles adjusted the binoculars and then pulled a loose candy cigarette from his ear.
“That plant is not going to clean itself, Ray Charles,” Squirrel said with a smile.
“Sure ain’t. Don’t worry, I’ll get one of the men right on it, sir.”
Ray Charles reached behind his back and pulled out a large, black walkie-talkie. He clicked the button and raised it to his mouth. “Breaker, breaker this is Hawkeye We need a cleanup in Mother Command. Repeat, we need a cleanup in Mother Command, over and out.”
Static crackled. Ray Charles held the radio close to his ear, waiting for a response.
“ROGER THAT, HAWKEYE,” a voice boomed over the radio, causing Ray Charles to jump back and nearly drop the radio in the process. Rosie was so scared that he scurried beneath Squirrel’s desk and started to whimper.
“WILL GET SOMEONE ON IT ASAP, OVER AND OUT.”
“Gosh darn, Rooster,” Ray Charles said, rubbing his ears.
“So is there something I can help you with besides the spilled plant, Ray Charles?”
“Right.” Ray Charles scratched his head, adjusted his binoculars, and then pulled an onion from his jacket pocket and took a bite. He was up to five a day, all in the hopes of putting hair on his chest and a ‘stache on his face. “Do you need a coffee, tea, Ovaltine, Danish, or anything at all, sir? I have a spare onion as well if you’d prefer one of those instead.”
“No, but thank you, Ray Charles. I’m quite alright.”
“Sure thing, sir. But if you change your mind and need anything at all, just call on me, sir. I swear to Hemingway I won’t let you down.”
“I never had my doubts.”
Ray Charles beamed and held his binoculars high. He stood like that for longer than necessary and only left after Squirrel cleared his throat. Rosie returned from the safety of the desk and rubbed against Squirrel’s leg.
“Hey, boy, looks like we may finally get some peace and quiet after all.”
Rosie whimpered a reply. This was followed by a knock on the door. In entered Potty Mouth, carrying a broom, and Peanut Butter, carrying a dustpan.
“Hmmm-mumble mumble-hmmm,” Peanut Butter said, which after a one second delay, translated to “We’re here to cleanup, sir.”
“Bleep-%$#@-bleep,” Potty Mouth added, followed by another bleep.
“You shouldn’t say that about Ray Charles, Potty Mouth,” Squirrel said. “It was only an accident.”
Rosie seconded that with a bark, though Squirrel wasn’t sure if it was in the affirmative or the negative. The younger, smaller Peanut Butter held the dustpan while the older, bigger Potty Mouth swept, cursing the entire time. When they were finished, Squirrel rewarded them two marks each.
“Bleep-%$#@,” Potty Mouth said on the way out.
“You’re welcome,” Squirrel said, returning to his painting. It was still more canvas than paint. At the rate he was going, he would still be painting into next week. As he dipped his brush in a paint-covered coffee can full of water, he hummed a Bob Lennon song, “All You Need is Gloves.”
“All you need is gloves . . . gloves—”
“Gloves is all you need,” a soprano voice finished for him. Squirrel turned to find Demmie standing in the doorway, her bright red hair done up in pigtails, leaving her face full like the moon. The tiny brown freckles forming a constellation across her nose and cheekbones. Her blue dress fell to her knees, just above where her white socks ended. Rosie jumped for joy and raced over to her, letting out tiny barks of excitement.
“Hey, boy,” Demmie said, giving him a warm pat.
“How was school, love?” Squirrel asked. “Learn anything new?”
“Oh you know.” She placed her schoolbag on the floor and kissed Squirrel on the cheek. “Pretty much the same. I got an A on my chemistry test and aced my English paper, but didn’t fare so well on my math quiz. Never my strong suit.”
“Oh, well, you’ll get it next time.”
“We’ll see. Getting any work done?”
“No, not really.”
“The men keeping you busy?”
“Yes, sort of.”
“Well, heavy is the switchblade comb I guess. You still got that thing, right?”
Squirrel reached into his back pocket and pulled free the switchblade comb. He flicked it open, lifted his bowler hat, and ran it through his hair—almost grown back to full length—once, twice, three times. With a dissatisfied smirk, he placed the hat back on his head and tucked the switchblade comb back in his pocket.
“Still doesn’t feel right,” Squirrel said. “I never had much use for combs or brushes, just let my hair hang.”
“Is Ray Charles still nagging you to give it to him? I saw him on the way up. He had his binoculars in the other direction, otherwise I was afraid he’d do his thing and fall over muttering hubba hubba.”
Squirrel smiled. “Yes and no. He’s trying the passive aggressive approach.”
Ray Charles had been trying for months now to fill the void created by T.W.—or rather Finnegan—after his departure from the Row. At times, Ray Charles wore a leather jacket, slicked back his hair, kept loose candy cigarettes behind both ears—the real ones too strong for his adolescent lungs—and would have worn sunglasses if his binoculars had not gotten in the way. He even attempted to write his own novel, titled If These Binoculars Could Talk, but his short-sightedness kept getting in the way of his typing. He was always hitting the wrong keys on the typewriter, and as a result, his unfinished manuscript looked like it was written in code or a foreign language.
“Ha,” Demmie said with a laugh. “You should just give him that cherished comb of yours and let him run the place. You know that’s what he wants more than anything.”
“Perhaps you’re right, but do you really think Ray Charles is ready to run the Row?”
“Of course not, but you can always groom him for leadership.”
“Like the way T.W. groomed me?”
“A number one needs a number two.”
“But that’s what I have you for. You’re my number one and number two.”
Demmie blushed, her face just a shade lighter than her hair. She wrapped her arms around Squirrel and gave him a kiss.
“Do you miss Detroit Public at all?” she asked. “I know it was a tough decision for you to stay on at the Row full-time and the men do need you, but it was good having you at school.”
“Yes and no.” Squirrel raised his bowler hat and ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t miss the Wilsons or the stupid social hierarchy, but I do miss spending time with you.”
“Aw.” She kissed him again.
“It’s not the same without you there,” Demmie said. “Pretty boring in fact. It’s so quiet now that the Wilsons are no longer here. After their dads went to prison, they were pulled from school to be homeschooled. No one’s heard anything about Buck in ages. There’s rumors going around that he ran away from home. Imagine that. Anyway, how are classes going at the Row?”
“Not bad. Ms. Mouse teaches all the basics like math and English and Scissors handles all classes related to The Cause and ever since The Wiz created The Wire, the men can learn somethings on their own. Things pretty much run themselves, well, most of the time they do.”
“That’s right, The Wire. Sure are a lot of changes going on around here. After getting off the bus, I noticed another one of those abandoned houses has ‘SOLD’ over the For-Sale sign and I guess they’re gonna tear down the abandoned Ford plant sometime this summer.”
“Hmm. Lots of lumberjacks too.”
“Those weird-looking guys with beards and mustaches?”
“Ew. Gross. Alright, enough small talk. I’m going to do some homework and give you some time to paint. Looks like you need it. If anything comes up, let me handle it.”
Demmie slipped on her black PPSS-Douglass-Street-Affiliation vest—she was made an honorary member after the uprising—and sat in Squirrel’s chair behind the desk.
“Are you sure?” Squirrel asked.
“Of course, behind every good orphan there’s a good woman.”
Squirrel smiled and resumed his painting. During the next hour, Squirrel became lost in his canvas, while a handful of orphans came and went with various problems. Demmie handled each and every one with little difficulty.
“Aloe works wonders on the skin, Stone Age. And remember wrinkles are not a sign of age, but of wisdom.”
“Tell me again, Pickles, how you managed to get both hands stuck in those cookie jars?”
“Please explain to me again how jumping across the Detroit River relates to The Cause, Crash. The last thing you need is another concussion.”
“No, of course, you can’t go outside and scour the dump without sunscreen, Marshmallow. And yes, you have to use SPF 100, the special brand The Wiz created for you, otherwise we’ll have to change your name to Strawberry.”
“Yes, that heel goes well with your leg, Christmas Story. I’m sure it will attract all kinds of whistles.”
“Rolls of duct tape aren’t cheap, Duct Tape. We ration out a roll a day for a reason. And no, I won’t roshambo you for a second roll a day. If you want more, then you’ll have to discuss it with Scissors. He’s in charge of the Treasury.”
“I totally understand your grievances against Daylight Savings, Big Ben, but for now we have to keep the clocks ahead one hour so that we are on the same time as everyone else.”
“No, Monster, giant crocodiles do not really live in the sewers of Detroit. Not everything you see in a Tom Travolta movie is true. And what’s this I hear about you seeing a blonde-haired boogeyman in the basement? Sounds a bit jacked up to me.”
“Just because a lumberjack comments on your big head, Mike Tyson, doesn’t give you the right to knock the mustache off his face, no matter how ridiculous it looks.”
At half past five, Scissors came bursting into the room with urgent news. Squirrel held his brush mid-stroke. Demmie’s pen froze above her notebook. Rosie raised its head, its ears cocked and alert.
“Sir! Ma’am! The Charlie is set to arrive. Toaster reported seeing a car coming down the street. It’ll be here any minute.”
Before Squirrel could utter a response, Demmie stood and shouted “Well, what are you waiting for? Sound the alarm!”