Jerry had lived his entire life in Detroit. The Motor City. Motown. The “D.” The city of his birth, childhood, and well beyond, it was his first and last love. And so it was very difficult for him to watch it die.
Detroit’s demise had been long and cancerous, a slow and painful march toward ruin. Those who couldn’t bear it fled decades ago. Those who stayed crumbled and withered along with their fading metropolis. Faces once bright and vibrant turned pale and drawn; bodies once strong and agile turned slack, weak. Whatever disease Detroit carried, it spread rapidly.
Jerry did his best to get by. He had no desire to leave, for he had no place to go. Nor was there any other place he’d rather be. Detroit would get better, he kept telling himself. It became his mantra as he drove his delivery truck, day after day, through his beloved, rotting city.
One night, a few weeks back, Jerry went down to his corner bar. Nursing his third beer of the night, he heard a man talking rather loudly near the back. He took a look and saw a slender, shadow of a man holding court in a booth.A handful of people sat with him, hanging on his every word. The man was an anomaly; it was as if he’d been sketched into this world with a blunt piece of charcoal, drawn in thick shades of smoldering embers.
“The city is a living, breathing organism,” the man said. “Therefore, it must be treated as such.”
“What do you suggest?” a woman asked him.
“Surgeries,” the man replied. “What this city needs are surgeries. Many, many surgeries. You need to go in and cut. Excise the cancerous tissue, the tumors that eat away at the very core. I have overseen such procedures in the past, and I am willing to do so here. But the people must act. They must obey.”
Jerry shook his head. Just another barroom commentator going on about how he could fix all of the city’s woes. If only Jerry had a dollar for every time he heard such talk.
He ordered another drink. Soon, all thoughts of the shadow man and his ideas were forgotten.
A week later, he saw the man again, on television of all places. The Mayor had broken into regular programming to give a speech. He wanted to tell the good citizens of Detroit that he was instituting a new law. A brief period of mandatory donations to begin the following day.
Jerry watched the announcement on a TV he’d salvaged from a nearby junk heap and rewired. The shadow man stood behind the Mayor, a dark spectral presence who appeared an ill fit among the typical retinue.
The picture on Jerry’s rescued TV was often a blizzard of interference. It was no different on this particular evening, its screen a constant flurry, as if to match the snow falling outside Jerry’s window.
The shadow man seemed immune to the scratchy whims of the television, however, for he never once skipped or distorted, even as those all around him did so frequently.
Once the speech concluded, Jerry turned off the TV and turned to his window. The snow was coming down in thick, cottony puffs. It had already dusted the street and ancient ruins beyond, the hills of brick and concrete and scrap that polluted his view.
Mandatory donations, Jerry thought. He wondered what more the city could possibly take from its residents. They were a ferociously loyal bunch. They alone kept the city running on fumes. But they had nothing more left to give. Jerry certainly didn’t.
Over the next few days, as Jerry drove his delivery truck along the cracked and buckled streets, he began to notice subtle changes here and there. Familiar things had been mysteriously altered, seemingly overnight. The alterations were small, at first, barely noticeable. A missing segment of a building’s exterior piping, for example, or an old, rusted street sign suddenly vanished without a trace. They were minor, inconsequential, and nothing out of the ordinary. Things went missing in Detroit all of the time, be they pipes, signs, cars, or even people.
But soon, the adjustments to the city became more pronounced. Jerry began to see the “mandatory donations” for what they were. Someone was taking things, ripping them away from the city like a child might tear clumps of grass from the lawn on which they sit.
Out on his standard route one morning, Jerry saw a sight so bizarre, so extraordinary, that he was forced to slam on the brakes. His truck slid on the snow and ice-glazed road, but he quickly recovered and brought her in for a gentle curbside landing.
He climbed out of his truck and stepped into the middle of the desolate street for a better look.
The corner apartment building was missing one entire half. It looked as if a tornado had come through overnight and sliced the structure right down the middle.
On the top floor, a young woman stood in her bisected living room, oblivious to the wind whipping about her hair and the snow gathering on her carpet and furniture. She stared blankly out the ragged opening where there had once been a wall, her eyes fixed, as though glimpsing some unseen realm.
Jerry, momentarily transfixed, suddenly noticed that the woman was missing her right arm. It ended, just past the shoulder, in a crimson-soaked bandage. Blood dripped from the wrappings and onto her snow-dusted carpet.
Unnerved, Jerry jumped back in his truck and drove off. Throughout the rest of the day, he saw many more amputations, both to city and to the people who resided there. To him, it looked like Detroit had been picked apart by scavengers, so many bits and pieces missing, both large and small, all pilfered with no discernible pattern.
He couldn’t help but think of the shadow man’s words in the bar, his talk of surgeries, of cutting away the cancerous tissue.
He drove down Woodward Avenue. It wasn’t on his route, but he was feeling a strong urge to keep going, to head north, out to the suburbs. As he neared 8 Mile, however, he saw a cluster of vehicles up ahead, all of them stopped in the middle of the road. Drivers and passengers alike stood outside, all in a state of shock.
Jerry brought his truck to a stop and looked past the gathering. Woodward had suffered a horrific wound. An enormous chasm sliced across the south and northbound lanes, creating a wide open mouth across which no one would ever cross.
Jerry played with his radio dial. There was only one station still operating in the city, but when he tuned to it, he heard not the usual host, but the voice of the shadow man.
“Fear not, my friends,” he said. “Do not panic. The changes you see all around you are the necessary measures by which we shall heal this great city. All is going according to plan. Detroit will soon begin anew.”
Jerry backed up his truck and turned around. As he drove, the well-known radio host returned, sounding a bit panicked. “…no way in or out of the city. Portions of I-75 missing, Woodward, the Lodge…”
Jerry killed the radio and floored the gas. It would be dark soon and he didn’t want to be out on the streets come nightfall. He took a circuitous route home, for all of his familiar pathways had, in some drastic way, been modified.When he finally arrived back at his building, he was relieved to find it still standing in its entirety. He hurried to his apartment on the third floor, shut and locked and bolted the door, then took a quick inventory of his modest dwelling and sparse belongings. Everything looked in order.
He turned on his TV. It took a few seconds to warm up, but when it did, he was able to see frantic breaking news reports from all over the city. Joe Louis Arena was gone; the upper-half of the Fisher Building had been cleanly shorn from its lower-half; large portions of Comerica Park were missing. The city was in disarray.
Long-neglected streets had had entire blocks carved away. The center of the Ambassador Bridge had been taken. The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel had collapsed.
But it was the people who disturbed Jerry the most, those who happened to be in view of the numerous cameras filming the city’s widespread surgeries. Just like the woman with the missing arm Jerry had seen earlier, these people had also had vital parts excised from their bodies. He saw bloodied bandages over missing limbs, ears, noses, even lips. One poor man had lost both of his eyes and was staggering about, blindly flailing his hands at everything within reach.
The news cut to the Mayor. He was missing both of his lips, as well as one eye, but told the citizens of Detroit to remain calm. The shadow man stood behind him, so close he was practically sewn to the Mayor’s back. When the Mayor finished speaking, the shadow man took over.
Jerry stared at him.
The shadow man appeared to stare back.
“These donations are important to the welfare of this great city. When all is done, Detroit will begin to heal, to regenerate, rebuild. The city will thrive again, mark my words, but you must allow us to complete our work. It is your civic duty to comply.”
Jerry nodded. He understood.
Outside, the day had bled out, its corpse now draped in the dark cloak of night. Snow fell steadily and the metamorphosis continued. Streetlights flickered. Jerry went to the window and looked out. One-by-one, the lights vanished, simply plucked from existence until only blackness remained. Blackness and the snow falling against it like twinkling stars.
They were coming for him.
He had nowhere to run, for Detroit was now, by all accounts, an island, cut off from the rest of the state, the country, the world.
With nothing to do but wait, Jerry went to his refrigerator and grabbed a beer. He cracked it open and took a long, satisfying sip. Ice cold, but oh so refreshing, even on such a frigid night as this.
He sat back down in his chair by the window and watched the news reports flood in. On one station, the reporter stood in front of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. As she was speaking, the building behind her vanished into thin air.
Jerry leaned closer to the screen. He saw shadows peel away from the emptiness behind the reporter. They flowed toward her like spilled ink. The reporter dropped her microphone when they took both of her arms. She did not scream, however, nor cry. Instead, she smiled.
He reached out a hand and touched the television screen. It crackled with static, then shut off. As Jerry sat back, the TV disappeared completely.
The walls of his apartment rattled. A few framed photos fell to the floor and cracked their faces. Jerry calmly sipped his beer and looked down the hall, to the door. It rippled, then was torn from its hinges, yanked into thick, soupy darkness.
The shadow man entered.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Jerry said.
“We saved you for last,” the man said.
“What do I need to do?”
“Nothing, Jerry,” said the shadow man. “Just sit back and relax and I’ll take care of everything.”
“Do what you have to do.”
Jerry closed his eyes. He realized that it was all for the good of the city, his beloved Motown. He felt no pain whatsoever as the shadow man began to cut.