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The lesbians’ little dogs are at it again. Their big house across my street is lit up at both ends against this evening shade, and I can see Doris and Jean sitting in their respective studies continuing the legal work they each, always, bring home. The law is a second, lost-but-found profession for them. So are each other. Doris is the lifer lesbo, was making all the butchy trouble she could until she found Jean in her fifties, when Jean said she finally saw and admitted the light. Jean left her husband of thirty years, an investment banker, but didn’t by any means leave her three grown kids, the way she tells her own story, if you surrender the time. Doris and Jean met at the Slider Inn, a little burger place in midtown—this great old part of Memphis all different sorts of us peacefully call home—and there, they told me, they found what they’d been missing. They went back to law school together in romantic, flamboyant style. Doris does insurance defense, and Jean does plaintiff’s work. Yet neither sees their toil at opposite ends of the house as being set against each other in these late but chosen careers. And even though they’ve been in actual cases where they faced off before the bench of justice, the two of them see it only as further proof of what was always meant to be.
They’re so happy with each other, with their lifestyle now, the rest of the neighbourhood has to endure almost nightly the noisy proof of their shared joy of finding themselves together. I scoop a handful of neon Top Flites from the basket I’ve brought to my small front yard, space them out in an uneven line. The neon balls are glaring eighties-out-of-style, and thus cheaper, and I like them for both reasons. Plus, I can more easily chart their path after I’ve made solid contact than I can with a white ball arcing down above the roof of Doris and Jean’s house. The bright yellow is more visible in front of the dark backdrop of their mature trees in evening, before my shots disappear out of sight, into their backyard and the violent applause of yipping.
The dogs are their corroborating evidence of the certainty of chosen love, legal or not. Each woman delivered the little gift home as a constant, wagging celebration marking the other’s passing the bar. And, if you chance to meet them on the wide sidewalk in the mornings or late afternoons, hand in hand taking their matched pair of Chihuahuas for a walk, they’re giddy to tell you all about it. Doris will rest a thick forearm on Jean’s shoulder in mannish, contractor-style (her profession in her first life), while Jean tells you with laughter and tears the looks on both their faces when each held forth the bowed and basketed little bundles of joy for the other to have and hold and pet for what times they had left together in this world. I mean, it’s not like we were going to start a real family in our late fifties, Doris chimes in when Jean starts to get emotional trying to tell the ultimate truth of the dog-gift. She gives a playful nudge of Jean’s shoulder, winks at you to agree you’re hearing all this as the good, happy news it’s meant to be.
Never mind you have to work hard to pay attention to any of it as those two little tokens of affection strain their leashes right there at your feet on what should feel like shared city property. They make such a high-pitched, desperate racket snapping their toy jaws at you, wheezing from the fury of it, sometimes it’s plain hard to hear your lesbian neighbors’ words. They might even shiver their nervous bodies down on their haunches and take a shit right there on the sidewalk, staring you in the eye like a challenge to say something about any of it.
I’m glad you’re happy, I’ll say. Or worse, Sounds fun. Meaningless words I know I’ve never said before.
Now the two are loosed in the big backyard for the early evening hours, while their liberated masters work on happily from home. This is the time of day they’re loudest, finding imagined enemies everywhere back there. Squirrels, the Banders’s cat—which they don’t comprehend is big enough to kill them if it cared to—a leaf that flies up in a pull of rare August wind. They don’t get tired of their own frantic yelps for hours, and it won’t stop until Doris or Jean one calls the day quits and lets them back inside. It being a Friday night tonight, the end of a long week for the whole neighborhood, I’m sure no one else wants to hear it either. I’m the only one I see who’s outside right now, and I know me peppering balls back there likely only makes it worse. But still. There’s a principle here, I think.
I didn’t have to hear it tonight. I could have just packed my gear and been gone already. On the weekends, sometimes, I like to get just far enough away from town to take a full breath, be reminded the rest of the world is not like Memphis. Even my comfortable little part of it, where we say things to each other we can’t really mean just to get along. You don’t have to drive all that far to gain this perspective, either. Shelby Forest is only thirty minutes from midtown, and I could have been home from work and changed in twenty, my tent and pack stowed in the trunk of Dad’s old Valiant, a short cruise north, and camp set up by the time the sun fell completely into the trees. Or they have clean, tidy cabins for rent, if I didn’t even want to go to that much trouble. And once you’re out there, it’s surprisingly rural, and hilly, and quiet, land no one would expect to be snugged so close to this Delta that put Memphis on the map as Bluff City in the first place, a town slightly perched above, barely overlooking the sighing flatness all around it.
And I planned to head up there tonight, but Bayard got to me first with his late afternoon call. What I like about cruising around with him on the occasional weeknight and fairly regular weekend evening is the proprietary sense of Memphis he can reinvest in me, the native’s pride he always assumes we share. We slide along the streets in his big, pristine, low-mileage, pearl-colored ‘75 Eldorado convertible. So while I’m waiting for him, I decided to retrieve the wire basket of balls from the rotting potting shed at the corner of the yard, and Dad’s old Sammy Snead 9-iron, and work on my short game in the meantime it takes him to arrive.
Head down, release a breath as you swing your arms forward like a pendulum. Easy, son, I hear my dad’s voice remind me from our afternoons out at Windyke, the semi-private course out in the suburbs where he was so proud to finally become a member. It’s not about how hard you swing, he would say before he belted a one-wood as far as my eye could see. I perform the same routine now, looking up only after the ball is replaced by a smooth divot of dirt at my feet. The ball flies high, appearing in suspended danger of hitting their house from the imperceptible distance caused by the falling dusk. I’m able to release another breath when no sound other than the more eager barking of the dogs lets me know it made it safe within the boundaries of their backyard. Even on evenings where I’ll unload more than one basketload back there, by now after the first one lands, the little bitches see it as some sort of sport. As always, I harbor the vain hope at least one of their tiny skulls will be dimpled to death by that ball sliced silent through the sky, leaving the other to sniff and lick the companion’s body until Doris or Jean worries enough to get up and see what’s not quite right just outside their door. But no such luck this time, or so far—either by chance or what’s meant to be. If it did happen, I’d have to make up something to say. Maybe: I always thought they thought it was fun.
Doris returns them all, wiped clean of dirt and the dogshit they must impact back there. She walks them back over, collected in one of the “surprise” wicker baskets I’m sure one of the dogs arrived in. She’ll hand it to me, wink, say, You’ve got one hell of short game, in what must be the flat, butchier voice she used to use. All over the place, another wink, in a fairly tight spot. Then she’ll tell me just to set the basket back on their front porch whenever I empty it, already backing across the street with a neighborly wave, whistling as she goes.
I swing again, another flies, descends cleanly behind their house with a loud eruption of desperate yipping.
It’s then Bayard’s car rumbles up, and I tell him Hang on, and go put the clubs and balls back in the potting shed and come hustling back up the drive. He leans low across the vast bench seat of his Caddy and opens my door from inside.
So you read the Commercial Appeal today? he asks, as if we’ve already been having a long conversation. See where that guy blew his woman’s face off and then smothered their toddler with a bathmat? He shakes his head. Crazy town.
I fall onto the seat and shake his outstretched hand. No, I hadn’t, I say. By mentioning the right possessives in the right place, his woman, their toddler, Bayard knows he’s told me another tragic black story of Memphis without having to mention color.
Bayard and I met at the University of Tennessee my first week there, twenty-some-odd years ago. He was rush chairman for SAE, and I had decided in one moment to veer from my clot of suburban high-school friends to venture by myself into the foreign territory of private-school-stocked SAE. My high-school friends—acquaintances, really—were all headed to the Pike House, where Germantown High connections were strong. It’s one of those few decisions I’ve ever made that I can look back on, in all clear conscience now, as one of my own.
Bayard was the first to greet me and place a drink in my hand, and once he’d seen I’d written the suburb of Germantown on my nametag, instead of writing the shared, bigger association of Memphis, he regarded me as someone mildly exotic and made the way easy for me right from there. After I’d received a bid largely because of his interest in me, though we remained cordial, we weren’t too friendly with one another after that first week. He was a junior, and he’d just been doing his part as rush chairman to make me feel like SAE was just the kind of place I’d want to spend most of my spare time. It was his assigned job for the sake of the brotherhood. But it didn’t take me long into my pledgeship that fall to understand firsthand that SAE was the place bluebloods from all over Tennessee had come to land—a place I clearly didn’t fit in right away. That first night, Bayard compared my public-school education to that of his private school barely within the city limits of Memphis and I politely agreed there wasn’t all that much difference in our backgrounds, that we essentially grew up the same way, in the same place. It was a lie only people who’d just met would tell between them for the sake of having something to share. Our one problem is that neither of us has tried to correct it even after these twenty years of friendship.
I don’t know what made me think of veering course to SAE when I did. I must not have thought. In my memory, the Knoxville air was crisp even that early in September, so unlike this flat, hot west of the state. I had seen the black outline of low mountains past the lights of the baseball field and the SAE house illuminated before it while my Germantown friends clotted for that moment laughing and slightly drunk, together. The idea that I was finally, deeply home settled immediately in my eighteen-year-old mind with that view splayed out beyond them. I had been born in Knoxville, after my parents met at UT and courted and married and settled into a small apartment next to the Kappa Sig house, so that my father could take the first engineering job he’d been offered involving construction work out at Oak Ridge, and Mom could finish the few hours remaining for her Masters in Library Sciences. Even though they’d pulled up those shallow roots for Dad’s work progressing to Memphis by the time I was only nine months old, I’d held onto some idea of that mountain city being my true home. The sensation grew especially strong after Dad’s early and unexpected death here, at the hand of a deranged black man on one of his jobsites in south Memphis, after just a few years when he’d worked his way up a little. It was late at night, while he was trying to lock up the project-manager’s trailer. A quick stab over what cash he had, into his kidneys from behind, while his key was still in the lock. I guess I took one last look at the people I had called my friends to that point and decided I would get as far away as I could.
So guess you didn’t see the story right next to that one either? Bayard asks. About Shelby County strip clubs not having liquor after January first? And the ladies have to cover the money-shakers with pasties and a see-through?
I smile, wag my head No.
Shame, really, he says. Memphis clubs used to be known for full contact, anything goes. Place is going a little too clean if you ask me, he says, looking back over his shoulder. We ease out of my slender drive under the low rumble of the Caddy’s exhaust.
Wonder what the lesberterians are up to tonight? he asks, looking to Doris and Jean’s house, not expecting me to answer.
It wasn’t until the next fall I was at UT, when he received word from Memphis that his own father had dropped dead in the front office of the old family offset-printing business there on Cooper, hovering over the street in midtown, one fist clutched to his chest and the other to the bus stop signpost to keep from falling into noonday traffic, that Bayard finally sought me out as more than a pledged brother of his fraternity. I don’t know how he knew I’d lost my father early—it wasn’t the kind of thing I ever mentioned—but he came to me within the day as if we now had a fact of biography we had to share. Since that time, I think he’d say he considers me one of his best friends. He saw so much of a connection, that after he’d come back to Memphis and taken over the family business left to him (which now pretty much runs itself as a tidy exclamation mark to his trust fund), he decided to buy a car that, he said, would remind him of the prime time of his own dad too. Much as, he said, he knows my dad’s old Plymouth Valiant must remind me of mine. Thus this mint, low-mile Eldorado we find ourselves in, even though his father would have never been caught dead in anything like it, he’ll admit to anyone. I’ve never felt up to pointing out how different my situation really is. He lost his father after more time, after he was basically grown and was willed assets to work and play with, where I’ve simply held onto the things left behind as if they might eventually show signs of what should matter to me.
The bottom line is, I do consider Bayard as close a friend as I have, and he has done me many practical favours, not least of which was calling a family friend over at AutoZone corporate when he found I was moving back to Memphis from Nashville, where I’d tried to make a short go of it right out of UT, in the misguided notion I might fare somewhere better in the hilly middle of the state, a place I clearly had no history, out on my own. So I have him to thank for making it so easy for me finding the job in technical writing I’ve never had to move on from. It’s one of the many friendly ways he’s tried to make life easier for me since those first college days.
I also like the fact he’s still not married yet, just like me. There aren’t many my age left in Memphis who fit that category, and knowing Bayard is up for pretty much anything, with all the time and means in the world to do it, is a comforting feeling when there’s not another single soul in the city I could call to go spend a few hours like these. A little time with him is like a getaway all its own.
As he’s so far removed from the more unpleasant parts of Memphis by the extreme comfort of his situation, it’s easy for him to love this place and be its biggest champion. It’s fun to see where we live through his eyes. A fairly meaningless word, but it’s the perfect one to describe the sensation of riding around town and hearing him talk about how things used to be here and what really needs to finally change, and yet how to keep the right things just as they should be. When he gets excited his voice will slide into an uncharacteristic drawl. I mean I know Memphis has a shitload of problems, he’ll say, but only a Memphian knows the balancing act for the here and now. Hell, you know what I mean.
I haven’t a clue.
He narrates from the strip-club story what needs to stay (liquor and fully naked lap dances) and what needs to go (opaque G-strings and pasties) to keep the what it is in Memphis, one thick arm languishing along the top of the big white-leather bench seat, flicking my shoulder with an uplifted index finger at an emphasized point. The August air is thick in the dark just nearing eight but it feels good when the Caddy’s solid engine pushes us forward from the traffic light and peels it away, and then lets the humid mist settle back onto our arms and shoulders by the time the next one turns red. Bayard drives the big car mainly with his knee and the thumb of his left hand, that arm resting on the doorsill. The image leaves me with the dreamy sensation the Caddy moves itself along a path neither of us has to choose.
From my modest bungalow, he’s steering us south through Central Gardens along Belvedere, the stateliest avenue in the city where the homes fairly loom above and beyond the street. Then we’re on Central and he’s revisiting neither of us finding a woman to love yet. What you think we got wrong with us? he asks me as he makes a turn west toward downtown. He flicks my shoulder where his arm rests along the broad leather seatback. I don’t answer this. He plays the field and can get most women he wants. They know his last name. Young ones with no last names of note find him charming, and tight-bodied middle-aged divorcees with Memphis-society single and alimonied last names of their own still see his as a catch. My own problem is that I’ve only held interest in women who are in town for temporary stays. Some have been serious enough. But these few have been outsiders who refused to ever consider Memphis long-term, the main reason I was attracted to them from the start. They had that kindred watchful look of biding their time.
Now there’s the place, Bayard says, and points opposite the immaculate white-bricked walls of the University Club to a decrepit, high-rise apartment building. Where some of the fellas at the U Club kept a woman back in the day, he says, smiling, as he thunders the engine to merge with the hardscrabble traffic of Crump, which Central terminates into just beyond the U Club’s high-shrubbed walls of well-manicured green. They’d tell their wives they were going over to the club to wet their whistles on the way home, which I guess you could consider true enough, Bayard informs. We pause at the Yield sign, waiting to merge. It’s been called the Pussy Palace long as I can remember by those who knew it, he says. He cranes over his shoulder at the tower. Even my daddy called it that straight to my face. In that way we were more like friends. He shakes his head and hopes I’ll ask something, offer a remembrance of mine involving my own dear old man.
You got it, I tell him, because looking back as he is, he doesn’t see Crump is clear. I always turn the conversation to the mundane when he tries to bring up his father with me now. There’s just not anything to say, and the time for correcting him thinking we share this in common has long since passed and would only do our friendship a damage it doesn’t deserve.
Gives me an idea, he says as he accelerates onto the old avenue named for a long-dead mayor who had the nickname Boss. I know where we can go tonight. He flicks. But it’s too early yet. He says this more to himself than to me.
So we cruise all the way west on Crump, past wide lots where the projects have been laid bare for mixed-use housing to replace the low blocks of buildings set away from this desolate avenue, like the frowning facades of prisons. Then we’re rumbling past the intersections of Third, Second, Main. I feel the warm air sweep in around me and something denser, thicker, the mudded air of the river wrapped in it too. Bayard turns on the factory AM/FM radio and tunes it slightly to WDIA, the first black-owned radio station in the country. All of a sudden I remember this city is full of firsts like that. Roberta Flack is singing The Closer I Get to You as I look to the right and see a Phillips 66 freakishly illumined by those too-bright lights over the fueling bays, four black men crouched on the small building’s shadowed side, passing something among themselves they mean to keep hidden.
It’s one of those rare moments that envelops me as we glide up a slight rise and quickly out over the wide dark of the river itself. I do feel like a Memphis native, and a certain pride wells in me at the thought I’ve never had need to drive five miles out of my way and cross this older Memphis-Arkansas bridge once in my life. Nor have I set foot inside the gates of Elvis’s Graceland even though Mom always told me we lived not two blocks from it when she and my father and I first moved to town, when I was too young to know. I have not visited the Civil Rights Museum built alongside the Lorraine Motel where King was shot, nor the new Stax Museum either. It is the solid confidence of the native born that rushes through without effort, a pleasure knowing these things will always be here, set not in stone but in languishing Memphis time. Now I’m enjoying the experience of one of her landmarks the way I should: almost by happenstance, with no seeming purpose at all, only in pleasant passing.
A strange reverberating echo grows as we thunder beneath the bridge’s riveted metal spans. Bayard is forced to yell something about what we’re really on right here and now being the longest Warren truss-style bridge in the whole country. I have no idea what that means, but his reinvestment in me of shared local pride and knowledge makes me feel even better than I figured I could tonight. I’ve never been on the Old Bridge once in my life! I yell back to him under the repeating echo, using the term only a Memphian would, to call it by other than its proper name. Incredulous, he flicks my shoulder once more from his relaxed arm that has not needed to move, the old Caddy is so stable, so well maintained. Up the river just north of us is the Hernando-DeSoto Bridge lit up along its spans to form its relaxed m-shape, the “new” landmark here visitors recognize at a glance.
We cruise past miles of black, vast fields into West Memphis, Arkansas, where semis gather and tuck in next to each other on acres of parking lots as far as the eye cares to see, either side of I-40. Running lights lit and diesel engines purr so that the whole of the false town has a gentle moan beneath it. You wouldn’t think it could feel so different traveling across the bridge and river only a couple miles from the downtown of Memphis we can’t quite see from here, even though this part of Arkansas is so flat. The grey-black sky demands so much vertical space it feels like we’ve made it all the way out West. While the big Caddy tops off with fuel at a sprawling Flying J truck stop, we both go in and buy wide-mouthed bottles of beer to tuck illicitly between our legs in small brown bags with the collars folded down by the scrawny man behind the counter as if it makes complete sense to drink and drive, a night like this. Dogs is runnin’ strong over at the track, he offers, when he hands Bayard his change.
We take I-40 and the New Bridge back into town and the river is so much wider here, the bridge higher, her spans soaring so far above us there is no deafening roar and we could talk without raising our voices if we had anything to say. The skyline of Memphis is truly dramatic coming back from the low flats of Arkansas, even the ugly, useless Pyramid set down in its hole on the wrong end of downtown. The close, warm air buffets as I take a sip of the very cold beer and look at AutoZone headquarters tucked into its part of the riverfront, where my past fifteen working years have now been uneventfully spent. It is at least a perspective, one that might explain part of my long relationship with someone like Bayard and makes me glad he called when he did. The sheer pleasure of riding in his open car at easy speed and seeing Memphis at such confident distance descends slowly, and finally we’re back, moving at such a sure pace it’s like the clean, detached view a god might have coming down to it, one I seem to always be trying to gain.
My urge to remind Bayard of my hatred of the lesbians’ small dogs almost overtakes me out of sentimental gratitude for this view of my city he’s giving me now. Something to share. But as we roll down the ramp to funnel back onto Main, I think of the one real conversation Doris and I had after she brought the cleaned bucket of balls back to me in one of the dog’s baskets. I don’t know why she felt like it, then or ever, but she handed over the basket without a snide comment and said, You know what? I’m not really sure Jean’s one of us. Me, I mean, she corrected herself, staring at my chest. She was just so sad when I found her, she continued, I can’t ruin her happiness with the fact of it anytime soon. She put a hand on the implicating 9-iron I still held, because she had collected the balls so fast and hustled them back across the street to me that time. She spent thirty years miserable just because she’s a woman here, Doris said. Her hand moved from the iron to touch mine. But I do think Jean really loves me, even in the life’s not for her. She smiled when she said that, looked me in the eye.
It’s about time now, Bayard says, breaking the silence and saving me. He plots a course straight south and I say nothing in response. In the few moments it takes us to come down from the New Bridge, the idea of bitching again about what little worthless shits the dogs really are—adding now that their incessant yapping makes me imagine similar, desperate moaning of Doris and Jean and their grabbing acts performed on each others’ sagging bodies—strikes me as an immense betrayal of some kind of confidence bestowed on me, one I never asked for and don’t want now.
We drive south on Third far enough for me to think we might have passed into Mississippi. There’s not a single white face behind the wheel or as passengers in any cars. Some turn their heads fully to give us a good looking over. Maybe it’s just Bayard’s car.
He’s not a bit concerned about where we are or what part of town he’s headed deeper into. He’s resumed his narration to me of the men of the U Club in his father’s heyday and their twilight habits across the street at the Pussy Palace, and for some, where it takes them once full dark comes and they’re sure the wife at home is fine with them hanging around the club for what’s told will be a simple evening out with the boys.
Way I’ve heard it, he says as he noses the Eldorado into a slim lot right off Third, is there was a waiter who worked the U Club forever who’d wait on the Smoking Room in late evening. All a man sitting there would have to say was Louis, this evening I think I’ll take some brown sugar with my cream. Bayard knuckles my shoulder as we sit facing a slender two-story building with a barbershop housed in the ground level, its blinds shut tight. Old Louis would ask, How many scoops? and say, Yessah, I’ll fetch it to you terreckly, to whatever answer was given. Then he’d retreat, make the call, leave the men to talk. After a while he’d return with coffee cups for however many scoops were said and set them before those men as if all’d they’d ever been talking was a nighttime cup of joe to sober them up enough to get home.
They’d leave Louis to his cleaning up after them at the club, and they’d come here. Bayard points to the upper level of the building where the tan paint on the brick is scrolling loose in fat strips. A thumping bass emanates from behind small windows covered fully by black plastic. Bayard cuts the engine and puts his expensive sunglasses in the glove box but does not lock it, as if no one would think to open the door of his convertible even in this part of town.
I think my daddy might have made the trip at least a couple of times, he says quietly when he climbs out of the Caddy, as if it’s an afterthought. He leads me up a narrow set of stairs, finishing his story before he opens the windowless door at the top without knocking. This same place, he says. It was called Sweet Kittylong Brown’s back then, but sometime since the old man’s son took over and changed it to The Jungle Room. Can’t say why he felt the need. He turns the knob and enters.
I follow him into a space not much larger than my little bungalow’s living room, this ceiling lower, one naked bulb hanging from a wire in the center of the room. It is the only illumination against the smoke and darkness of the place. The few people black and white who populate the room take a moment’s notice of our entrance before looking back to whatever they had been, as if our arrival here was inevitable. A wiry white man dressed like an Arkansas rice farmer is sitting at a low felt-covered banquette beside a gorgeous black girl who has one of her white-jeaned legs draped over one of his, laughing gently in his ear. His right hand rests high up the inside of her thigh and she takes it and moves it even closer to her crotch, in full view of everyone. But no one else pays attention. What’s she’s got there is outlined exactly by her tight hot pants and has no room left for imagination.
I turn away, in part to see Bayard’s reaction, but he’s moved in on a black couple behind us, on an uneven square of dark-painted plywood that comprises the dance floor, and he’s already making slow turns with the woman I assume must be the man’s date. She’s wearing a loose sundress covering just barely what needs it as her body undulates beneath Bayard’s hand guiding her. She has one of the roundest, firmest asses I’ve ever seen. A close-cropped Afro that makes her look almost boyish, sexy as hell. I step to the makeshift bar, constructed of blue Turner Dairy and red Wonder Bread crates stacked together and topped by more dark, flat plywood cut to fit. A tired black guy I guess is near my age transforms his face immediately, animated now, saying Yessah, what’ll it be? He slides a pilfered napkin bearing the U Club’s seal before me.
Bourbon, I answer.
Ain’t got none, he says. But I gots this, if you take you some brown. He holds up a red bottle I don’t recognize at all, and I say it’s fine, because I want to have something here to do with my hands. I can’t really lean on the bar for fear it might collapse, so I stand at the end and pull the napkin near me and drape my arm atop the bar to appear relaxed, though I fear to trust any weight to it.
Hur you go, he says to me, and actually places the drink in my hand, which feels strange, intimate. Tell me how that taste?
I take a sip and it’s sweet like cough syrup, with that troubling, more intense background of rubbing alcohol. It’s good, I lie. Could I get it on the rocks?
Ain’t no thing, he says.
It’s like Bayard and the man have some unspoken arrangement with the man’s date, I see, once I have the drink back in hand and pretend to be at ease against the bar, where I watch them. Bayard takes a few slow turns with the woman and then offers her back to her man and the two go to grinding close as if Bayard’s involvement forces them perceptibly closer. The loud, thumping bass of the song slides easily from one track to the next because the DJ behind his own single stack of milk crates is attuned to their action. I take another thick sip of my syrupy drink and have a brief vision of my sad, confused neighbor Jean alone in the middle of this floor, making slow, awkward turns. If she were here, I’d ask her to dance. The two of us would make a nice pair, I think.
And after another numbing swallow I think of Bayard’s repeated offers to help me join Memphis Country Club alongside him, as he’s said, to finally fit into a proper place in Memphis for the long haul. His father had memberships at the U Club and MCC, memberships that slid right into his name. The main difference between the U Club and the country club is that the country club has a golf course and is the oldest and most exclusive in Memphis, and to my knowledge still has not allowed any other than a token black member or two to join. I’ll agree sometimes to come meet him at the driving range before he plays a round, always to work on my short game. I’ve never told Bayard I’m not interested in golf at all. I went as a boy to the course at Windyke to spend time with my dad. Whenever I tried to swing the longer clubs out there on the wide suburban fairways, going for distance, I had no control and would slice my shots to the right every time. But at short range, I could eventually put it right where I wanted after Dad’s repeated instruction of how to swing, and he would rub my head and say, That’s a way to go. My boy. My boy. That’s all I wanted to hear.
I’ve held on to Dad’s clubs, and sometimes will walk with them slung over my shoulder from my house to Overton Park, pepper the public green with a nine or a wedge just for old-time’s sake, to be able to think of him and those simple words of fatherly pride.
The last time I met Bayard at the club, he was with a fat middle-aged rich friend of his childhood whose last name labels several buildings in town. This guy looked overly healthy and sad the way some rich people do. And he could just not fathom why I hadn’t brought anything longer than a nine-iron. He kept ribbing me about it, until finally he said to Bayard, Yore friend here’s like that old nigger James caddied for our daddies. Would putt around on his own all day long if you allowed it. He was looking at me while he talked, his gloved hand resting on the head of his cartoonish Big Bertha. Never had any interest in learning the game for himself. But none of them do, old or not. That there’s the problem. Just the way they are.
I lined up another ball and landed it not sixty yards ahead, popping it off the one I’d just dropped right there. Then I asked the fat fuck if he wanted to give his short game a try with real old-school clubs, ones that required you to prove actual talent. He didn’t take the thin Sam Snead I pointed clubface-first at him, just stood there and looked at me like he wanted to punch me. But then he smiled and shook his head as if we agreed this was all a big joke. Bayard was leaning to place a ball on one of the range’s built-in rubber tees and pretended he didn’t hear any of what we’d said to each other. Maybe he really didn’t.
After a couple more dances Bayard slides over next to me, sweaty, and asks for a beer. I don’t notice when the sweet drink I’m holding becomes empty and how another just like it, and maybe another or two, make their way into my hand. This must be what it’s like to be rich, I think at some point, lifting the third or fourth to my lips. Things just fall to hand easily, if you hold it out there. But my mind is thrumming, and the words Bayard is saying to me now about seeing Memphis true in a place like this, where her history is still right on the surface where it should be, seem wrapped in a thin velour like the cheap banquettes lining the room. Yesh, I agree, smiling thickly, and after what must be a couple more he pats me on the back and says, Come on, let’s get you on home. I notice as he leads me out that the man I’ve imagined as an Arkansas farmer and the beautiful black girl are headed to the back, his hand fully down the back of her hot pants, rubbing her hard there with no shame.
As Bayard pilots the way back to midtown I know I’m drunk—not so bad that I’m going to be sick—just beyond being able to speak clearly, where I know anything I say will be slightly slurred and he can’t take me seriously. The streetlights slide by my vision as if caught in the thick air, but I’m not so shitfaced that I can’t have my own lucid thoughts as we approach the bungalow.
My life here is mainly what’s been left to me, just like him. The job at AutoZone is one Bayard called in favors to make it easy for me to get. Then there’s Dad’s clubs, and his car. This city isn’t really mine, I think, as I get out and shut the huge door to Bayard’s Caddy quiet as I can, as if I need to creep into the house so as not to get caught coming in. I don’t belong anywhere.
Before I stumble up the first step, I call out to my friend, Thanksh showin me around. I glimpse a flash across the way when Bayard rumbles off, a reflection maybe, or a light quickly dimmed at Doris and Jean’s.
Even though I’m having trouble standing straight and seeing in the dark, I ease back to the potting shed like a thief and remove the unused, bulbous driver from the creaking leather of Dad’s bag by feel alone. Cold and slim, the wood head smells of the forest and the club’s top-heavy weight feels like purpose in my hand.
I creep back to the front and set out another uneven line of neon balls, little blurs on the dark lawn. I stand farther away than before, plant my feet wider for a good drive. I breathe in the aftertaste of sweet liquor passed from the brown hand to mine and it fills my head with a power Bayard’s reminded me I’ve always had here without having to even try. Just relax into it. I swing my arms like a pendulum, not fast, easy and slow just like Memphis, just like Dad taught me. And even without a tee I feel the shock traveling right up through my arms, hear the thick crack letting me know I’ve made solid contact. That’s a way to go. My boy. My boy. I can’t even see the neon ball until it bounces off the apex of their roof with an extreme, wrong-sounding wham. I hear the muffled, screaming barks almost immediately, strange and beautiful sounds coming back to me from somewhere deep inside an otherwise quiet, peaceful home.
I aim lower then, for the darkened windows I can’t really see, for their blaring red front door. If I do break something, maybe the noise will shock all of us awake long enough for them to run over here to see what’s going on. Then I can say how sorry I am for something that really is mine to own up to. Maybe after that we’ll start acting like real friends who might end up someplace new together, with all our true faults worth forgiving.