The Holly Tree’s a Negro juke joint north of Byhalia

Tommy visits the Holly Tree

      A little while into Mississippi, I pass over a creek and slow down. I see the Holly Tree on the left side of the road. It’s an old clapboard house. The yard is full of trash and weeds. Tar paper peels up from the roof as if the building suffers from psoriasis. A corrugated awning sags over the front porch. Some beer and RC Cola signs are nailed to the wall.
      I pull across the road and park in the dirt next to two old trucks. It’s early. The place will be packed by sundown. I step onto the porch. An old yellow dog lies on its side. Its muzzle is thin and gray. The dog opens and closes a film-covered eye as I pass. I pull the screen door open and step inside.
      Four colored men play cards. They look at me and shake their heads. I ignore them and walk to the bar. I ask the man behind it for a beer. A cigarette dangles off his lower lip. He stares at me with his hands on the bar, the left of which is scarred from a burn.
      “A beer,” I repeat.
I put down a quarter. He fetches up a bottle, opens it, and sets it before me. The coin remains untouched.
      “Now you didn’t come all this way for a beer,” he says.
      I take a swig. It’s cool and it gives me time to think of what to say.
      “No. This beer’s just a bonus. Someone called me. Said if I ask you, I’ll find out about a missing white girl named, Helen.”
      The man’s eyes open wide, his mouth opens wider.
      “A missing white girl? Here? Damn. You came a long way for a beer.”
      “I’ve traveled further.”
      He laughs and takes the coin and drops it into a box before joining a couple at the other end of the bar. I drink my beer as I listen to the jukebox. Some men make jokes. They laugh at me, but I don’t want any trouble.
      The door opens a little later and an old colored man walks in. He wears a worn out pair of overalls. His brogans are in worse shape; the leather is cracked and scuffed from years of use. He takes off his left shoe, looks inside, and sets it on the floor. I get up and walk toward him. His cloudy eyes are rheumy and his earlobes hang long. Several days’ grizzle coats his cheeks.
      “Dan? Dan Turner?”
      The man looks up as he takes a piece of cardboard from his pocket.
      “Who?” he says.
      “Are you Dan Turner?”
      “My name’s George Owens.”
      “Sorry. I got you confused with someone else. Can I buy you a beer?”
      “Sheeit. How ’bout you buy me a whiskey.”
      I get the drinks while George opens a knife and cuts the cardboard to fit his shoe. I come back and set them on the table. I sit across from him. He gestures with his glass, tilts his head, and empties the cup before I so much as taste mine.
      “Damn—that goes down better than ’splo. You come around here anytime, kid.”
      I work on my whisky while George cuts the cardboard for the other shoe.
      “So kid, you got a name?”
      “Tommy Rhodeen.”
      The cardboard’s too big. He takes it out and says, “So, Mr. Tommy Rhodeen, you come here expectin’ to find this Dan Turner?”
      “No. I was told I could find a girl I’m looking for. A missing white girl named, Helen.”
      George sets down the knife. The men playing poker stop betting; their heads turn our way. George scratches his chin and says, “Now, I don’t mean to make light of anyone’s misfortune. Especially someone who bought me a drink. But that is the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time. You comin’ in here to find a missin’ white girl. Sheeit.”
      The men chuckle and go back to their game. George trims the cardboard; he puts it in his shoe. I need to go home. But then a woman whispers, “Helen,” into my ear and walks away.
      George and I watch her. She’s tall and wears her hair cut short with spit curls. She sits at a table in the corner and checks her makeup. Her face glows like honey. I nod at George. I get up and approach the woman.
      “What do you know about Helen?” I ask as I sit down.

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You been baptized?

Tommy goes down to the Loosahatchie River

      A string of cars and trucks are parked along the roadside. I slow down. I hear singing coming up from the Loosahatchie. I pull over to see what it’s about. I follow the footpath down to the river and come upon a group of people singing a hymn. Several stand soaking wet with the clothes on their back dripping in the sun. I look beyond. Two men stand in the river on either side of a lady. The taller man speaks:
      “This is something Shirley here tells us is missing in her life. Praise the Lord! And so she wants to be baptized. Amen! And to feel the righteousness flow from the top of her head all the way down to the tips of her toes. Whoa! And so Shirley we now baptize you in the name of the father and the son and the Holy Ghost!”
      And as he finishes his oration, the two men tilt the lady back. Her head goes under the water. Her blonde hair floats fan-like upon the surface. They raise her up. With water streaming from her hair and face, she smiles and uses her thumb and forefinger to clear her nose. The people begin to sing and two enter the river to help her out. An old man in a pair of khakis nods to me. The lines in his face show he works under the sun.
      “You been baptized?” he asks.
      “I don’t know. I was too young to remember.”
      “You don’t remember? Then it was ain’t done right.”
      I smile and shake my head. He steps to me and places a hand on my shoulder.
      “When your house is on fire you gonna drip some well-water on it and call it done? Well, the house of your soul is on Hellfire, son. And less you get right with Jesus, you’re gonna burn when the time comes.”
      Another one’s plunged into the river and I point there.
      “You been baptized? Like that?”
      “Sure have.”
      “And that makes everything all right?”
      “In the hereafter.”
      “What about now?”
      The old man shakes his head and mutters. I look toward the riverbank. Identical twin boys, about sixteen years old, get ready to receive their ablutions.
      He points his finger at me and says, “When you bury the dead, you just gonna toss a little dirt on ’em? Or you gonna bury ’em deep?”
      I don’t reply. He walks away.
      Someone chuckles behind me. I turn around. It’s a man, he’s in his forties. A narrow brim straw fedora sits on his head. He holds a jacket over his shoulder.
      “You been baptized?” I ask.
      “Yeah, but in church not in that river.”
      “TThen why are you here?”
      He mops his forehead with a handkerchief and smiles.

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Don’t stop for pretty women with engine trouble

A guy gets more than he expected

A RABBIT RUNS across the road and the man driving the Cadillac Eldorado swerves to meet it. Motoring along a two-lane road that cuts through a marshy forest, the driver takes advantage of the V8 engine’s 305 horsepower as well as the factory-installed air conditioning.
      With one hand on the steering wheel, he uses the other to turn up the volume on the radio. There’s no one in the back, so the driver has tuned in to ten-seventy on the AM dial. It isn’t a station his employer would listen to.
      The deejay begins an outrageous radio patter full of rhyming and signifying and speaking to the astounding benefits of a particular brand of pomade. The assertions go miles beyond what can be achieved through even the most exaggerated claims related to anything tonsorial. Then he hollers out the time and the station’s call letters before playing Hold Me Baby by James Cotton.
      The man enjoys these times when he drives with no one in the back, which means he can listen to Nat D. Williams, or Rufus Thomas, or some of the other colored announcers on the radio. Furthermore, the Cadillac serves as an extension of himself and it seems to make up for things he cannot control, such as his height.
      And right now, even though he is only running an errand for his employer, he can pretend that he owns such a fine and fancy automobile. In fact, in a year or two, he plans to own a similar car. Except his is going to be a convertible in cherry red. He turns the radio louder. He taps his hand on the wheel as he sings along with James Cotton.

      “Hold me baby
      Hold me in your arms
      Hold me baby
      Hold me in your arms
      You can squeeze and love me
      Baby, all night long.

      “Say she’s mean?
      Treats me nice and kind
      Say she’s mean?
      Treats me nice and kind
      Don’t worry about my baby
      Because I know she’s mine all the time.”

      But he stops singing when he notices a brand new two-tone, blue and white Mercury Montclair parked on the side of the road. He also notices the hood is up. And what’s more, he notices a high yellow woman with a complexion like a tan paper bag standing and waving beside the car. She wears a tight red dress that reveals a pair of well-formed legs. She has fine features, and she wears her hair cut short with curls like Dorothy Dandridge. And being a man, he pulls over to get a better view. She looks drop-dead gorgeous and she looks like she needs help.
      The man brings the Cadillac to a stop. He steps out of the car and into the steamy air, oversweet with honeysuckle, and shuts the door with a whack. He’s five-foot-four with two-inch lifts in his shoes and he’s conscious of his small strides as he walks the twenty yards back down the road. To make up for his lack of height, the man affects a rolling swagger.
      “Can’t git her started?” he asks.
      “No. It was driving fine. Then there was this noise and the car died. So I pulled over. My man’s gonna kill me when he hears about this. Oh, he told me to never mess with his car.”
      The man beams as he says, “Aw, he don’t need to know nothin’. Lemme take a look.”
      She smiles back and says, “Would you?”
      “Sure I will. I know me a thing about cars.”
      The man removes his chauffeur’s jacket, as if he is a surgeon preparing for an operation, and he holds it out to her. She takes it and folds it with care, while the man rolls up his sleeves.
      “Sugar, try to start her while I listen to the engine.”
      He opens the car door for her and watches her legs as she slides onto the seat. She twists the key. The car goes chugga chugga chugga chugga.
      “Try again, sweetheart.”
      She does and the car keeps making the same chugga chugga. That’s when another man, a big colored man, steps from behind the trees. He has a body and face like a bear. His eyes seem too small for his head. He creeps toward the guy leaning over the engine.
      “One more time,” he tells her.
      TThe car goes chugga chugga chugga chugga. And the noise covers the last two footsteps, the swish of the tire iron, and the grunt as the man crumples to the ground. Then the motor catches, the engine starts. The assailant scoops up the man and swings him into the trunk. He tosses in the tire iron, slams the trunk shut, and slides through the open door and onto the passenger seat. The woman leans over and kisses him on the mouth as they speed down the empty road.

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Getting rid of an old stump

Tommy sees someone who reminds him of Dan

      Anyhow, it’s time to go. I get in my car, but pull over after only a couple of blocks. Reflecting in the sunlight is a pickaxe striking the ground beside a tree stump. It’s hefted by a strong colored man. He wears his hair shaved close and his neck muscles show above his wide shoulders. His clothes are stained with sweat and dirt. I watch him work on that stump and, in my mind, I go back fifteen or more years to my own backyard.
      “Hey, Dan, what are you doing?”
      “Getting rid of this here, tree stump.”
      “How come?”
      “Well, this ol’ tree took ill.”
      “It’s sick?”
      “Uh-huh.”
      “There’s nothing you can do for it?”
      “No. There ain’t no cure. This tree got somethin’ that spreads. Like the flu and it pass on to the others. Make ’em sick. Kill ’em too.”
      “So you had to cut it down?”
      “Yeah. Your daddy said cut it down. And now I gots to get it out, roots and all.”
      “It hard?”
      “Sure it’s hard. What tree wants to leave this here, Earth?”
      “So how you gonna do it?”
      “Chopping down this tree? That was the easy part. Then I hads to gather it all up and haul it away. Now I gotta dig out the roots.”
      “How you gonna do that?”
      “That’s the hard part. I gonna use this pickaxe, saw and shovel. Dig all around them roots. Cut ’em out best I can.”
      “That it?”
      “No that ain’t it. I gots to build a fire and keep it burning. Burning until what’s left of these ol’ roots ain’t nothing more but ash.”
      “Then it’s gone?”
      “Then it’s gone.”
      I look out the window and watch the man attack the ground with the pickaxe. Sweat rolls down his face. His arms and muscles are like how I remember Dan’s. Dan would be in his sixties by now, and I have no idea where he’s gone. I asked around some years ago, but Dan is as gone as those tree roots.

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Watch out he’s got a knife

Some punk wants to get even with Tommy and he only just met the guy an hour ago

      I hear footsteps behind me. I turn around and see the punk.
      “You still owe me a finder’s fee,” he says.
      “You’re a broken record, kid.”
      He pulls a knife and pushes the button. The narrow blade flips open and catches the light.
      “Nothing doing. You’re not gonna chisel me.”
      He takes a step in my direction.
      “Where’s your two gorillas, your goons?” I say. “Isn’t that how you operate?”
      The punk cackles in a singsong voice, “Just you and me and my blade makes three.”
      I roll my eyes.
      “Come on, cut the tough-guy act. You’ve been watching too many movies.”
      He coughs up a lunger and spits it at me. It lands with a splat between us, but I’m not laughing.
      “I’m going to ask you nicely, put away the knife and go home.”
      He doesn’t reply. We circle each other. He feints with the knife. I use my hands. The punk springs forward; I dodge to my left; the blade punctures the side of my shirt.
      We circle once more. His eyes stare into mine. Sweat drips off his chin. He lunges at me. This time I’m ready. I step to my left and grab his forearm with both hands. I crank it against my hip. Then I give him a right hook to his nose. The cartilage snaps. He yelps and lets go of the knife. It clatters to the ground. I step on the blade with my heel.
      Before he knows what I’m doing, I reach down and grab hold of it. I yank up on handle so the blade snaps off beneath my boot. In a single move, I drop the broken handle and rotate up with my right into his belly. I follow with a left across his already broken nose.
      I hear a gasp. A couple going to their car does a double take. They rush back inside the bar. I grab the punk by his shirt collar and toss him onto the hood of my car. I lean into his pimply face.
      “You still want your finder’s fee!” I shout.
      The kid groans. I wipe my car him with like a dirty rag. I push him down to the gravel. He curls up in a ball, expecting to feel my boot in his kidneys.
      My hands are streaked with the punk’s blood. My shirt is also marked. I’m too revolted to take it further. I wipe my forehead with the back of my hand. I light up a smoke and flick the match at the punk on the ground.
      I get in my car and speed off, kicking up a load of gravel. My body shakes, my heart beats fast, and my lungs can’t get enough air. I toss the cigarette out the window. A shower of sparks explodes into the night.

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Tommy gets some advice

Tommy hears something he’d never quite thought about

      “You have in your mind a view of the world in which everything hinges on you. It’s a belief that doesn’t allow for options beyond your imagination and, more often than not, ends in sorrow. Many men see things this way and it’s not an accurate view of the world. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
      I nod my head.

– continued from further down the page –

      He gets up and sits next to me on the bed and says, “Great men are often seen at a distance. What I mean is that we view them through our own experiences and not through the lives in which they actually led.”

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Visiting the dealer

Unannounced, Tommy stops by the house of an old friend

      I pull up behind a Chevy and switch off the engine. Several boys play cowboys ’n’ injuns in the vacant lot on the other side of the street. I get out and cross the sidewalk. The metal gate screeches. I knew it would. Jim Gantry never oils it. He wants to hear anyone coming. Dusty sheers shake in the window. As I’m about to knock, the door opens. Jim frowns and says, “Why are you here?”
      I’m about to answer. My right hand is out. Jim grabs it in his left; he pulls me through the door and slams it shut with his foot. He lets go of me and turns around. An old woman sits in a recliner crocheting a blanket. I haven’t seen Mrs. Gantry in ten or twelve years, and she pays us no mind as she crochets away on her balls of yarn. There are porcelain figurines and gewgaws in a curio cabinet and none of the furniture matches.
      My eyes water as the stink of cat urine wafts by. I use the back of my hand to wipe away the sting. I blink and see Jim dangling a long .44 in his hand before he sticks it under a sofa cushion.
      “Haven’t I told you? Never come here.”
      “I thought you wouldn’t mind. I brought what I owe.”
      Jim licks his lips and says, “All of it?”
      I nod. A fly buzzes about my face. I shoo it away. I pull out the wad of bills. Jim steps forward as I count.
      “Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty. One hundred. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty. Two hundred. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty. Three hundred.”
      I hand Jim the cash. He puts it into the wallet he has chained to his belt. For a moment I think he smiles. “You want anything?” he asks.
      “No, I’m good, thanks.”
      “On the house.”
      I shake my head. He shrugs his shoulders.
      “Suit yourself.”
      I nod back and tell him about the new job. Jim tries not to show it, but he looks impressed. He goes in the kitchen, takes the percolator off the stove, and brings it to the sofa with another cup. We sit. He pours me coffee and refills his own, lights a cigarette and says, “Hey, you seen Bob Oakley?”
      “No, has he got out?”
      “Last month. Came out with more scars than when he went in. He won’t be getting into trouble in Arkansas anytime soon.”
      “I never did visit him,” I say. “Did you?”
      Bob picks up a flyswatter and uses it.
      “Once. Enough to know I’d never want to end up there.”
      We drink our coffee, and Jim relays me stories Bob told him about doing time at Cummins State Farm. He tells me what he knows of the long line riders; the men, armed with rifles, on horseback, who oversaw the prisoners chopping and picking cotton. Bob had told him about the strap and this thing called the Tucker Telephone. According to Bob, the prisoners worked ten-hour days, six days a week in fields so muddy they’d drill holes in their spades to let out the water.
      Jim finishes his story. Neither of us speaks. I turn the chipped cup in my hand and take a sip. One of the cats skulks along the edge of the sofa. It tries to rub up against my leg. I jostle my foot.
      Then Jim crushes out his cigarette and says, “When you was a kid, you have any idea how we’d all turn out?”
      I look down at the floor.
      “Well at the time, I never gave it much thought.”
      “Me neither,” he says.
      I set my cup on the table and ask, “Was there something back then you wanted to be?”
      Jim smiles and finishes his coffee.
      “Yeah, a cowboy. Go out west where there weren’t so many people.”
      “Why didn’t you?”
      “Turns out I got a fear of horses.”
      Jim laughs. His mother looks up and asks what’s so funny. We just shake our heads and laugh some more. But the laughter is there to cover what both of us are thinking. Neither of us has ever talked about fear. It’s something we didn’t do. We look at each other, each knowing what’s in the others head.
      After that I get up. I say so long and leave. I watch the boys play across the street as I walk to my car. Their whoops and hollers merge with sound of Webb Pierce singing on the radio from the house next door.
      I get back on the road to check out Garland’s cabin. I’ve known Jim Gantry and Bob Oakley since we were kids. Of the three of us, I’m the only one who never did spend a night in jail. Jim’s two years older than me and the youngest of five children. Now he’s an amphetamine dealer and a sometimes money-lender, who occasionally tips me off as to who might have something I’ve been hired to find. Bob, I haven’t seen since before I got drafted. The three of us were once like those boys I saw playing across the street.

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Truckstop diner breakfast

Tommy gets more than bite to eat

      Just outside Memphis, I stop at a diner. There’s a gravel lot to the side of the place. I drive past the rigs and park. I walk in and take a seat at the counter one spot over from where Jim Gantry sits holding a cup of coffee. We ignore each other. I study the menu. He reads the paper.
      The waitress sets down a plate with a single large pancake in front of Jim; it comes with a big pat of butter. She refills his coffee and pours me mine. Jim tilts the bottle of syrup. He pours it until the pancake can’t absorb another drop. He cuts a piece from the center of the plate and forks it into his mouth.
      I look up. The waitress taps a pencil on her pad; I order breakfast. She walks away, tears off the paper, and clips it into the order wheel hanging in the pass through. A cook sets down a plate of eggs, rings the bell, and pulls my order.
      Alone, I swivel in my seat and say, “Hey Jim,” to the tall man in blue dungarees, plaid shirt, and cowboy boots. Jim raises his cup. He holds it there and stares over it as if he’s reading the specials on the wall. A second or two passes. He says, “Tommy,” takes a sip, and sets the cup down. I swivel back in my seat and mutter, “Heading to Nashville,” between my teeth.
      “That so? Business or pleasure?”
      “Business.”
      Jim cuts another bite.
      “You need another loan?”
      “No, but can you fix me up?” I say out the corner of my mouth.
      “You got cash?”
      “Yes.”
      “Can do.”
      Jim eats his pancake. He works his way out from the center—forming an atoll in a sea of buttery syrup—until the only thing left on his plate is a maple slick.
      The waitress says, “Here you go honey,” and sets down a plate in front of me. I spread jelly on my toast and stab my eggs with a fork. Jim goes back to reading the paper. Two truckers nod at him as they leave the diner. The waitress refills our coffee. She leans over me; her breast rubs against my shoulder. I finish eating and pay for my meal.
      I go into the men’s room and clean my hands. The door swings open as I pull the loop of towel from the box on the wall. Jim checks if anyone’s in the stall. I set my money on the edge of the sink. Jim picks up the cash. He takes a small plastic bag full of pills from his jacket and places it where the money had been. I pick up the bennies. No words are spoken. I leave and get back in my car.

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Killing time in Nashville

Tommy’s search gets put on hold so he takes a walk by the river

      I get in my car and drive to the river. I park in a lot and try to nap. I can’t sleep. I get out and step through weeds and gravel and trash, and cross the tracks until I am under the shadow of the Shelby Street Bridge. I hear the clank clank of the cars and the ruffling of pigeons roosting on the girders overhead. Below, I see an old colored man in a skiff on the river. He hauls in a trotline and comes up with five or six catfish.
      I take the footpath down to the water. I tread between knotted-up coils of fishing line, dog turds, and broken glass. The old man has tied up his boat. He steps onto the bank and gives me a nod as we meet.
      “What are you using for bait?” I ask.
      “Mostly days-old chicken livers, gizzards, and hearts. Them cats like stinky stuff.”
      The old man holds a catfish from behind its pectoral fins, and he sets it on a broad piece of driftwood. The cat opens and shuts its mouth and raises its spines. Then the man clubs it upside the head with the handle end of a hammer.
      “You not from around here,” he says.
      “No, I’m from Memphis.”
      He mutters something, picks up a sixty-penny nail and hammers it through the head of the fish. He uses a pair of pliers to rip the skin off the cat. After he peels it, he works the nail back and forth till he can pull it out. He grips the naked catfish and pokes the tip of his knife into its gullet. He runs the edge of the blade toward its anus, cutting a vent from which the cat’s innards pour out in a wad of gore.
      “So Memphis? What you doin’ this aways?”
      “Looking for a girl.”
      “She run off on you?”
      “No. Nothing like that.”
      He makes a humph sound. Then he wipes his knife on the leg of his pants and wraps the fish in a sheet of newspaper. The old man speaks while he does the same to the rest of his catch.
      “Bud, lemme tell you somethin’ ’bout women. They got this sixth sense. Let’s ’em see things plain as day. The problem is they think we see ’em, too. You see where I’m goin’ with this?”
      I smile and nod my head.
      “So this girl who run off on you.”
      “She didn’t run off on me. Her daddy hired me to find her.”
      The old colored man laughs as he picks up his parcel of papered cats.
      “Okay, bud. I see you don’t wanna be helped. That your perogativ’. But if it was me I’d study on what this girl done see that you don’t.”
      The fisherman shoves off in his boat. He gives me a wave and calls out, “Open your eyes, bud. Open your eyes!”

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A bad night in Nashville

The night began badly and only got worse

      I sit on the curb. I look at the bar across the street and realize I’m lost. It’s as if I have walked into a different city. I close my eyes, but the sound of shouts and shattered bottles breaks my thoughts. Wild men in oil-stained coveralls and patched-up dungarees, lugging clubs and knives, approach each other. Their thin faces wear cruel expressions that bare the marks of malnutrition. I jump out of the way and ask the man next to me what it’s about. He tells me the fight began years ago, the impetus long forgotten. One side comes from some meager place up in Kentucky and the other from some rundown quarter in Knoxville. Year after year, they come back to settle their score. An ugly crowd gathers and cheers till somebody fires a shot. They all scatter. A siren wails and I get moving; my shoes crunch the broken glass reflecting in the street.
      Beyond the mayhem, I pass men going in and out of peep shows. I head north and wind up in Printer’s Alley. I drift past the Black Poodle and the Rainbow Room, while the barkers describe the sights and the talents and the measurements within. Through the gutters and along the sidewalks flow the last of the partygoers. A man bumps into me, he pukes on my shoes. It’s obvious I will not find Helen here, and this night walk has become something less than futile.
      The bars close. I wander toward the river in the dark. I see the shapes of hobos and of degenerates curled up in doorways, hugging their bottles of ’splo or squeezing Sterno juice through a sock. Their eyes reflect back at me as I pass. The sound of urine splatters against the wall. The shadow of an old man turns around and exposes itself before it buttons its fly and hobbles away like a glue factory horse in search of cheaper whiskey.
      I shuffle forward. A gust of wind comes up from the river. It carries the reek of muck, and it pushes forth a wave of handbills and candy wrappers and grit. It traverses along the sidewalk, until the wind dies, and the swell of detritus breaks hard upon the concrete. Two figures emerge from the gloom and they take position under the glare from a sign of a cheap hotel.
      “Hey sport. You like to dance?”
      She hikes her dress above a knee revealing a pair of bruised legs. Her hair is unkempt and hangs down in strings.
      “No thanks.”
      “Come on handsome,” says the other. She sets her hands on her hips and flashes a smile short a few teeth. A black eye is visible under a crust of makeup. I ignore them both.
      Then the sound of the horn and the rumble of the wheels precede the flash of the headlamp as a northbound freight train labors along the tracks above the Cumberland. Its hot sulfurous breath blasts as it passes. Gnomes stare out from empty boxcars, their malevolent eyes glowing. A devilkin clutches the handrail atop a reefer. I walk on. The ground shakes harder beneath my feet until the locomotive and its load has passed.
      I light a cigarette in the newborn silence and notice something low that moves in my direction. It seems to drop down in a swimming motion as it comes forward. Together we enter from opposite ends of the yellow pool of a street lamp. It looks up at me. The top half of a man propped on a roller board. It holds a pair of wooden blocks that it uses to propel itself forward. It stares into my eyes and demands a cigarette. I shuck one from my pack; it snatches the cigarette from my hand. It strikes a match, lights itself up, and pushes itself away on its wheels. Smoke trails in its wake like exhaust.
      Someone laughs. I look up and see the glow of a cigarette bob up and down in an open window. I turn back toward town. The two streetwalkers no longer stand on their corner. I make for the same rooming house as the night before.

Get Descending Memphis to find out what happens

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Well that’s something you don’t see every day

Tommy tells Aunt Norma about his date

      Aunt Norma smiles at me, and I take a mouthful of toast.
      “Well, I got to go,” she says. “Cora tried to change a light bulb, bless her heart. I’m going to drop off a covered dish and help out a while.”
      She comes around the table and kisses the top of my head.
      “There’s another green bean casserole. You have some when you get hungry. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
      I nod and say, “There was a street preacher last night. In front of Loews.”
      Aunt Norma raises her eyebrows and waits for me to explain.
      “He came out of nowhere, he did. Shouting Bible verses. New Testament. I think one of the epistles. And then the cops came. There was a scuffle and someone hit the guy in the face with a bottle or something.”
      She sets the casserole back on the counter. She puts a hand to her cheek.
      “Well that’s something you don’t see every day. What did your Evelyn think?”
      “He frightened her.”
      “Did he?”
      “Yeah, he was crazy.”
      Aunt Norma chuckles, then stops herself.
      “When I was a girl we used to see them like that. At revival meetings mostly. Homespun preachers and snake handlers that come out of the hills. From out near Chattanooga, I guess. Real hillbillies. Talking about how they shall take up serpents, and that they shall not get hurt. That they shall lay their hands upon the sick. That sort of stuff.”
      I shake my head.
      “Really, you saw all that?”
      “Why sure, a lot of people come watch. I think they just wanted to see if any of them get bit.”
      “Did they?”
      “Not that I ever saw.”

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