The night began badly and only got worse – an excerpt from the book
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.
“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