UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 02/2012
TAYLOR C. RENFROE
KILLERS, THIEVES AND LIARS
I was in Memphis in July, trying to make like every other rock n roll pilgrim on Beale seeking escape from the creeping river humidity, hoping to stumble into the ghost of someone famous to share a drink with. The heat was rolling up the brick streets like bales of cotton years past, and the falling light was no savior.
The blues had become a carnival of its own, stewing together from each street-corner bar band, Handy Park refugee and cart-wheeling kid, a Highway 61 gumbo rich with flavor deeper every step. You may not find Elvis’ Memphis in here, but somewhere you might catch a glimpse of an American soul, down there with the crawfish and electric andouille.
A handful of drinks were already singing in my blood, pulling a fog of reason across my eyes, when I stopped beneath the Black Diamond. It wasn’t more impressive than another door bleeding turgid blues, but some shadow beneath that neon headstock invited me, urging like destiny. Someone had just opened the narrow door, pausing a moment in that rich magic dusk and neon light long enough to catch my eye. And maybe you just imagine in, when the light is like this and you’ve a few Force 10 Hurricanes in you, but they were eyes that seemed to say Follow Me, just before the door closed.
The moment lingered like a fading dream, but I hesitated only for a second.
The bar was worn down from years of shots, beers and tumblers, wooden floor scuffed and rolled in the center. The lights were just low enough to convert a pile of liquor bottles into mystical cordials and gloom the greater portion of the room, the air humming with slide guitar, fry grease and thin smoke, a microcosm Beale atmosphere. I took a stool at the bar and ordered a drink from a Henry Rollins look-a-like in a tight black t-shirt.
Even here with the chugging air-conditioner it was sultry, thick fume of drying sweat. My glass was shedding condensation like the water seeping into my eyes, and the jukebox, smells, the heat and the booze all brewed together into a hazed trance. I don’t know how long I had sat there before noticing the guy sitting next to me.
It was his smell I noticed first. God knows the last time he’d washed that blotchy vest, swirling with body odor, river stench, and some cloying spice I couldn’t put my finger on. He was either a very pale black man or a white man sun-scorched to the color of dried-out chocolate, clad in that faded red vest and a scroungy top hat Fagan would have scorned. His hands, resting with a slight palsy on the bar, looked like he’d been digging in the mud before stopping in for a pint. I knew I’d had a bit much to drink when it felt like he kept drifting in and out of focus.
“Whatcha got in your pocket?” he said, right as I turned away. He was still looking at his miserable beer.
“You got something. In your pocket. Lemme see.”
I rarely carry much beyond a pocket knife, Zippo and loose change, and I said as much, but he just responded with a slight smile. The corners of his mouth stretched farther than they should. “No. Not that. The powder.”
“Give me the powder.”
I had slipped into a shop called Tater Red’s earlier in hopes of an air-conditioned reprieve, a bewildering junk-yard of head shop, macabre collectibles, music and a little hoodoo. I’d bought a spell vial on a whim, just for the hell of it. Just because sometimes you can’t help yourself, and you want to tie yourself back to a shadow-world you’ll never see again, only read about. Wasn’t even really sure what it was for, something to do with the river.
I was even less sure why this ghoul wanted it, especially since he could have gone half a block down to get one of his own. This town has its share of weirdoes, and there’s only one response to them: “Fuck off,” I said.
“Won’t bring you nothing but bad luck and trouble, boy. Let someone knows what they’re doing take it.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said the girl on my right. She was thin as river driftwood, short dark hair with colorful tattoos retreating beneath the sleeves of her black shirt. “Not everyone here is in the tourist trade, you understand?” Her voice had a drawl, but only very slight. You’d miss it if it weren’t for certain vowel combinations. She had been drinking Jack Daniels unfettered all night.
“Don’t remember anyone asking you,” the bum said. His gaze had never moved from the bar.
“Go spook some Gracelanders. No one wants you here.”
The man growled, an honest-to-God growl, but finished his beer and stood up. He looked me in the face then, still wavering in my vision. “Bad luck and trouble,” he repeated, as though speaking a portent. “Bad luck and trouble.”
The girl downed her whiskey as he left, and waved the glass at Henry. I said, “Takes all kinds, yeah?”
She looked at me a moment, as though making an appraisal. “You get all kids down here,” she said. “Welcome to the home of the blues.” She paused for Rollins to splash more gold into the tumbler. “Not nearly as bad as the papers’d like you to think, but you watch your step after dark.”
“Yeah?” Thinking of the damn-near deserted streets downtown, scaffolds and plywood battling the newsprint tumbleweed and street people shuffling in parkas in the hottest weather. Trying to find cigarettes earlier in the shadow of buildings and pigeons, I spent a lot of time dodging all of the above under the sad, sympathetic eyes of the Metros.
“God takes vacations sometimes, when you don’t expect it. The sitters he leaves behind? Killers, thieves and liars.”
I lost track of how long we were there, a three-shell game of drinks and psychedelic trance of music, chasing an indistinct white rabbit into the night. She told me a story about Memphis, about the merciless river, an over-loaded steamboat full of Yankee prisoners from Andersonville pulling to St. Louis, and I could hear the darkness of the water churning, lapping. They never made it, only got a few miles upriver before the boilers exploded and tore the ship in half.
“Some fifteen-hundred people died there, some blown a hundred feet away. The rest, scalded, burning like matches as the flaming wreck drifted downstream.”
And then we were slipping down the sweaty bricks of Union, clutching a sloshing, half-empty bottle of Jack, where the humidity was rising in fog from the river and sticking to your face like ghosts of cobwebs, holding hands and laughing like teenagers down the seawall steps without falling and over the jagged, bulbous cobblestones swallowed by moss and Mississippi. The lights of the steamboats were dimmed, rocking gently, and I dropped to sit next to a rusted leftover of mooring chain. The sounds were just a rush here, the cars I knew would be traversing the bridge not far from us completely silent, lights fading into the trees and the seductive hum of the river.
She sat beside me, struggling playfully for the whiskey, swilling deeply from the neck with a giggle. “It took four days to collect all the bodies,” she said, waving into the distance as though they had all floated to this very spot, under the rippling gaze of Arkansas and Riverside lights. “Barges. They sent barges, up and down, for four days. Six-hundred men in hospitals. Lincoln’s been dead for eleven days. April of ’65.”
Her face was reflecting the Mississippi like she was liquid itself, a water spirit crawled from her home to seduce land-dwellers with her beauty. I leaned in to kiss her night-rose lips, but she stood up and moved to the water eagerly drinking the banks. Somehow I managed to get back up and follow her.
“Soldiers starved, and sick for months, river at flood stage, they couldn’t swim if they wanted to. No press. But people here, people here still remember.” She took a pull of the Jack, then poured some out into the river. “People still remember.”
“Ole’ Man River hungers,” I said. I don’t know where it came from, it seemed the right thing to say.
She nodded solemnly. “River gives, takes, wants. Like any old sea god.”
And she wrapped her arms around my neck, and mine slid around her waist, trying not to tremble, and she pressed her lips into my mouth, hard and soft and fierce and sensual all at once. I could feel the blood in my veins, down every limb like it was on fire, could taste the cigarettes and the sour mash, could taste the river itself deep in my lungs, dark, dusky, flowing history itself. I was trying to breathe, not because she pulled it out but for what she put in. I felt the scream of steam engines boiling, felt the shrieks and conflagration. I felt the cold water of early-morning hopelessness, felt myself burning away slowly in a corner cabin. I felt things a man isn’t allowed to know this side of Judgment.
And wherever I had gone I could still feel her hands as they slid into my pockets, finding the little souvenir vial. Then her lips pulled away, leaving me standing there unsteady and lost on the slippery cobblestones. She smiled, saying something I didn’t catch, pressed the Jack Daniels into my hand, and let me fall to the riverbank.
I never saw her again. When I woke, it was like these mornings since, on my shoes as a pillow behind the Olympian, or Autozone Park, with a Salvation Army cast-off coat and the taste of witch-hazel and whiskey in my mouth. Some things are always better in memory than life. It’s like that elusive treasure you keep coming close to but never obtaining. And on days when the light turns purple and the heat moves up the channel of buildings like the Sultana, I’ll make my way to Beale Street, hoping to stumble into someone famous to share a drink with. The river, it gives, takes, and it wants.
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