Cathy Salustri's Interstate

Part of the Sunlit Festival.

click to enlarge Cathy Salustri's Interstate
Jennifer Ring
Her home stood here once. In the 1970s she was a little girl, and they had a pretty little home here, even if it was run-down, and it was, because it was an old wood house and her daddy was black and her momma — well, her momma was light enough to pass but that didn’t make life any easier because she was black inside but not black enough to avoid the looks she received when she walked down the street with her husband. 

But the house — though run down, though the wood had termites and no heat and what’s worse was no air — was a happy place, a place where they all laughed and danced and sang and dressed for church and sat on the front porch every night and knew their neighbors and those neighbors, well, they watched out for everyone’s children because in the black community the idea of things taking a village didn’t come from Hillary Clinton, in came from years of only having each other and knowing, just knowing, that if they were going to survive they had to rely on each other.

Her daddy was a preacher at the local church, and he didn’t make good money but the church let them live in the house — which, really, was the nicest one on the block, which, really, was sad but she would hear her momma and daddy talk about they had to always welcome people into their home because it was God’s house, not theirs and it wouldn’t be right not to because the church and God provided and it seemed to her her momma and daddy were a little bit embarrassed that their junky house was not quite as run down and sad as the rest, and she felt guilty and grateful in her heart that they had it and also sick and sad in her soul that she sometimes wanted a house where she wouldn’t find termite wings on her pillow in June and she didn’t get so hot — so sticky and mucky and grimy hot — in July that she would offer to run to the corner store just so she could stand, just for a minute or two, in front of the milk case and breathe without breathing in all the hate she had for that house she was so lucky to have.

And then, one day, the bulldozers came, for her daddy’s church. Because, her daddy said, the city needed baseball more than it needed God, and one night she heard her momma, after they thought she’d fallen asleep, she heard her momma hiss at her daddy that the city wouldn’t bulldoze the house of a white man’s God, and she heard Daddy say she was right but good lord, what could he do?

The day they tore down her daddy’s church, she and her momma and her daddy went to gather the few things at the church — the address book, a chair he’d brought to use at his makeshift desk, which was really a piece of old plywood on cinderblocks, and the hymnals they used at worship. As they loaded them in the car, she watched the men, waiting to tear down her Daddy’s church. Black men on the bulldozers but white men in the pickup trucks, and as soon as they were clear of the church, the white men gave a shout and the bulldozers moved upon the church. The wood groaned and gave under the scrape of the giant bucket, she noticed that the black man, black like dirt, she thought, not shiny and dark like her daddy or the rich honeyed black of her momma, but black like mud, that muddy man didn’t look at her daddy at all but wiped his eyes once or twice.

With the church gone, the house went, too, and they moved south, to a smaller house that they had to rent and momma had to get a job at a hotel where she took the bus two hours a day and cleaned toilets and puke. Daddy took a job at a local diner, washing dishes. They didn’t know their neighbors; they didn’t even know where their old neighbors went. The government built an Interstate where her house used to be, and she could still picture it, a ghost shape rising out of the center lane, about a half mile back from where it shot people out to the downtown. She went to school on a big yellow bus where the white girls had nice clothes and talked about college. She knew she would never go to college.

When her daddy got sick, she dropped out of school to help take care of him so momma could work, and when he died, she didn’t go back. She took a job at the ball field, cleaning toilets. She could picture the old cemetery, under parking lot 6, and she knew her daddy’s church used to stand right around where the ballplayers sat and scratched their crotches. She could picture that, too, the ghost of the church shrouding these odious men who desecrated her father’s sanctuary with spit and swear words and laughter. 

Sometimes, when the ball game ended and she could, she’d sneak onto the field, sink down on her knees, and pray.