I. Hairline crack.
I don’t know why I went south looking for my father, but I did.
When I was a freshman in college, I saw his face up in the clouds, a mental imprint strung high over Jersey City. I was driving down the Jersey Turnpike and the image emerged like an apparition: his dark hair inverted to white and a soft smile playing on his lips. It held steady until the wind changed and then started to disintegrate.
I had to ask someone if it was really there, worried I’d gone mad. (We do that in my family sometimes, though no one likes to talk about it.)
The fact: My father was dying, and we had just finished the last coherent conversation we would have.
The fact: He was dissipating, and I could see it.
At St. Francis Hospital the hour before, a pair of elderly women had fought over baby dolls in the hallway by his room, thrashing from dual wheelchairs in loose, blue gowns. They clawed at me as I edged past, crying like children. They reached out as if I could help, but I averted my eyes and walked past them.
Safe, then, in the clarity of fluorescence, my sister and mom and I encircled my father’s bed, pushing down shadows and talking the small talk that precedes death.
We came together one last time as if through muscle memory.
II. Into mist.
Fast forward to twenty-three, and I emerge from torrents into sweat-soaked Memphis moonlight, my father’s alcohol breath hot on my cheek.
I had spent the year before in Orlando, bouncing between couches and bedroom floors, selling guitars, though I never made music. There was nothing to keep me, and when friends land in the Delta, I follow.
Driving northwest through Georgia’s blossoms, through the thickness of Mississippi rain, the lights keep shorting in the blue Geo Metro I bought on shit terms in Winter Park. Trucks barrel by at amphetamine speeds, sending ocean-sized waves of dirty rainwater across my windshield as I jiggle fuses. Knuckles white, I take up smoking on the way to town.
It’s midnight when I finally arrive and my friends have gone slanted with drink, the city greeting me with soft focus. I find myself in Memphis, and people warn me: “You can try to leave, but once you’re here, the city calls you back.”
Really, though, I think it follows you.
But first: night-cast. I watch the lights bounce off the DeSoto Bridge across the Mississippi River, scattered constellations going unnamed. I watch neon Beale Street cast her inverse shadows into the sky, a city of actors playing 1950 for the right price. Drunk on the rooftop of a converted factory building, I let the heaviness of deep-southern air envelop me the first time. Its char perfumes the city like a lullaby, ends burnt, and I give in to blur.
When the sun comes out in Memphis, the city is a squirming insect trapped under a plastic dome, hot light pressing in. I push down tremors and let my friend cut my long, wavy dark hair to the chin.
Nursing coffee at the Arcade Diner on GE Patterson, where Elvis used to have his own booth, my friend introduces me to a musician. He tosses pizzas and takes smoke breaks like my father did when he found my mother in Jersey City. He has blue eyes and a cigarette tucked tight behind his ear. He’s all long, denim legs and a black tee shirt; haunted, but in a good way.
Approaching my table and sitting across from me, his half drawl comes paired with a whisper of a smile: “What’s up?”
That’s all it takes.
I nod and sip my coffee. “Not much.”
For a time, then, life becomes real-black-music-lemonade-sweet-tea-tears-and-blues. Life becomes Jerry-Lee-lightning-and-fireworks, oh Lord. We spend most nights in the band space where past and present collide in the form of hip-hop and punk blues and metal that’s really pop. Bodies sweat. Bodies thrash. The air is cigarette ash and sound.
Some days, we sit in his jeep and listen to music: Willie and Waylon, Slayer and the Cramps. The power was cut in his place, but the music is electric. I listen and watch the kudzu curl around a rotten wood fence.
Days pass. Are they years? Sunrise and sunset switch roles in bar windows and I let time slow to a crawl, a passive form of prayer. We howl into the night and regress. Inside the sound, I can push against my own wounds. Inside the sound, I can embrace turbulence and drift.
Life becomes smoke.
Life becomes chaos.
Life becomes drink.
One night, my father’s violence plays from my hands, and the shock of its electricity stuns me. Splayed across bedroom floorboards, hot tears, I wonder if it’s in the blood, this need to pursue a slow drowning. Smoking on the front porch, 4 a.m., I look skyward, but there aren’t clouds to guide me. When the musician leaves, he asks if he reminds me of my father. It takes me a long time not to hate him for it.
IV. Swimming shallows.
Fast-forward to another morning, later, when the infection of the city has taken hold. My screen door, plywood thin, clangs against its wooden frame and there it is: Lacey’s voice, loud like always. “Girl?!”
Damn. I left the front door open again. But then, I guess I’m ready for another cigarette.
Perched on the railing, Lacey’s belly hangs over the top of her too-short cut-offs, but she doesn’t give a shit and neither do I. It’s hot. Fat or thin, your ass is sticking to the plastic Wal-Mart chairs, regardless. It’s best, then, to keep still.
Every time you get up, it makes that fruit-roll-up sound and feels like getting waxed.
Flick of the lighter and I burn down Lacey’s Kool, even though I don’t smoke menthols. This is what we do, Lacey and me. We’re neighbors, and I guess kind of friends. “Girl, have I got a story,” she says in smoke signal as her eyes go all wide and sideways, like they sometimes do. I wait and smoke and nod.
At first, I half understood what Lacey said, her accent coming thick down 55 from Missouri—and fast—but I mostly get it now. I’m starting to sound that way myself, new friends laughing at my tepid y’alls and fixin’ to’s. This is what happens when you move. Your voice becomes a photocopy and you end up sounding like you’re from nowhere.
A typical afternoon? It’s me, Miss Louann, and the long-haired guy who hits on me now that the musician is gone, all cigarette smoke and words hanging lazy in the air.
Miss Louann is the matriarch of the block, eighty-god-knows-what, but still sharp in her twilight years. These kids, you see her thinking, head spinning east then west. But walk by—oh, Lord—-and she’ll tell you a long-ass story just the same. Her house is just shy of a shanty, patrolled by feral cats. But her flowers! Looking out the window, I see her weeding most of the day, clad in a baby-blue house dress.
When the musician leaves, Miss Louann says she loves the freedom of being alone, smiling her gap-tooth wisdom. She says: “If I want to dance the boogaloo in the middle of the night, I don’t have to ask no one.”
V. To be contained.
Across the street, Lacey’s weirdo, live-in boyfriend freaks me out. He’s always in that narrow patch of yard, mowing circles. I pretend like I’m not watching but look at him: hunched over with a buzz cut. A suspicious gaze and always with the lawn, as if there’s something to keep down. By mid-afternoon, though, I’m half-crocked, and the voyeurism helps pass the time.
Which brings us back to Lacey. Turns out, her weirdo, live-in boyfriend has cheated on her. It isn’t tears though, when she tells me, lighting another smoke off the tip of the last. This is just another dizzy story for another dizzy day, and around there, one runs into the next.
I make like I’m listening, but I’m mostly thinking about myself.
But Lacey doesn’t fuss. Dry-eyed, she looks at me with raised eyebrow and says she will need my help.
A few days later, I’m in her kitchen walking circles as she prepares to move her furniture into my second bedroom, the one with gray walls that kind of breathe green.
“Girl,” she tells me, “it’s so good.”
Lacey already has a new man in West Memphis. And while her armoire won’t fit in his trailer, she will. We’re smoking, and her kitchen is full up with trash and boxes. It’s an odd kind of day and I feel about a million miles from home. I don’t ask about the chronology.
Outside, the long-haired guy is carrying Lacey’s life across the street, merging her busted furniture with mine. Miss Louann just shakes her head, weeding her garden like always. We finish packing, and I tell Lacey I’ll drive her over the bridge.
First, though, we’ll stop for the keys.
Looking out the window onto West Memphis, it’s easy to imagine that time has stopped. The city is a worn gray brown, flanked in highway neon that turns orange black at night. The banks along the river flood and disappear, drifters who camp its banks moving further into Arkansas as the waters rise.
And then there are the truck stops.
And then there’s Lacey’s new man.
On the stereo, we’re listening to a track by the guy I’m sleeping with. Lacey’s telling me that this new guy gets her hot and I’m listening, kind of, but really, I’m picturing my teeth in his flesh the night before, lonely like that. Fingers down my throat, the liquor spilled backwards. I feel like hell.
We get to the big-rig repair joint off I-40, where eighteen-wheelers roll in and out from everywhere. A fan tilts wobbly overhead and his friends leer with red eyes and dragon exhales. Lacey’s shaking in her short shorts, laughing that cackle. Me they’re looking at as if I came in riding on a comet. Uncomfortable, I heard my father whispering in my head like he would in New York City when I was a kid. Danger would lock in if you gave them the chance to see you, he said. He said it made sense to be afraid.
That runs in my family, too.
Everything and everyone, flattened into two dimensions.
From the shop, the directions to the trailer are simple: Drive under the highway, hang a sharp right, and you’re there. His place is in the back. For a second as we drive, I find myself wondering if this is where the West Memphis Three were from. It isn’t, of course. I’m being dramatic.
We cruise through a neighborhood of tin and plastic flowers and there’s his driveway. I pull in “Lacey, Lacey!” The kid’s got shaggy hair, riding a bike with no shoes on. “Lacey! You got any money?”
“Get the hell out of here,” she smiles. Here sounds like her the way she says it. “Come back later when he gets home.”
When Lacey opens the door (thin sound, metallic) roaches scatter. They’re running around my house, too. “Just put this shit in that closet,” Lacey directs.
A pile of porn lays lazy by the TV and there’s a posed shot of a son in uniform, the kind of picture with the fake-cloud background. Everything feels temporary, feels like a woman hasn’t lived here in ages. My father’s place felt like that, too, from the weight bench plopped down in the middle of the small living room to masculine set of paperbacks on his shelves. Shadows from his small Bayonne apartment materialized in sharp focus and for a second, I was peering out from beneath that bench.
One, two, three, four…we lug the trash bags of tangled clothes, the tops of the hangers piercing into the black plastic. When we got the last of it out of the car, we stand outside, driveways perfectly aligned in a neighborhood of tin and plastic. Highway sounds echo like waves. “I should head back,” I say.
“Come back soon,” she says. “And the furniture…” She trails off and we hug, sweaty.
“For sure,” I say, empty in my words. With a left-hand signal I’m back out on I-40, sun strung low behind me. I see Lacey again, but only once when she comes with a U-Haul to get her shit. I don’t know it that day in the trailer park, but I already have one foot out of Memphis.
I don’t know why I went south looking for my father, but I did.
And in a way, I found him: There was a flash here, a cut of darkness there. One feeling punched through another with precision as I drew a finger to blur the edges of myself.
Hellfire, cigarettes and beer-can tabs on a dusty coffee table.
Eventually, it feels like a memory.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/LimaPix