Never, Never, Never
v.i. “the Mississippi River flows . . .”
A woman huddles with an Easy Way bag. She wears a long red jacket, a flappy black skirt. A cigarette pokes from her mouth. Her face is hidden by her ragged straw hat. You only see the face—and her eyes—when she twists to re-arrange herself on the bench. The bench has no protective covering: gas fumes swirl around the woman’s skinny white legs. She’s just come from the Easy Way where her fingers danced over squash and okra, nectarines and figs, playing the tune of summer fruits in Memphis. She spreads her legs, leans over.
She opens the mouth of the Easy Way bag.
Across the street at the Walgreen’s, a very tall, very slender, ebony man strains to hear the whispering of an elderly black lady. The man is actually a boy. A Lost Boy of Sudan, flotsam of the Sudanese war. He is trying to make himself concentrate on what the frail woman is saying, but in the sibilant flow of her words, the crackling of her dry lips, the long, drawn-out sigh that trails each sentence, he hears the fruits of his homeland.
The wind blows the woman’s skirt; the folds give a rustling flap; and, the boy is back in Sudan, on the banks of the White Nile, deep in the reeds. He is still a young child. He grips a stick he’s whittled himself. The tiny point threatens. A silvery fish darts, swirling the surface of the water.
The boy spreads his legs, leans over. He cocks his elbow.
*In the halls of The Med, a doctor walks. His tread is heavy, his silver head bent. At seventy-three, he should be retired. But there aren’t enough doctors to go around, not the kind who will deliver babies for women they meet for the first time on the delivery table. The women are scared, worried for their babies, not even knowing the name of the man in charge. So he talks to them, tells them everything will be all right. Too often, it’s not. Without the needed care, frequently the cry doesn’t rise, the nurses don’t beam. And the women are left to the comfort of a stranger.
The doctor’s shoes slap the tile floor. He nods to a passing nurse, cocks his elbow to push open the lounge room door. Then whips his head to the side as the intercom squawks his name.
Not far from the hospital, a young woman walks the raised railroad tracks. On each side of the tracks, students freed from class flee the college campus. Cars cut out of parking spaces; horns beep, impatient for their turn. The girl, safely above the traffic, steps from cross tie to cross tie. Her hair swings with her walk, her walk is off balance. Her high heels kick cinders.
A boy, a University of Memphis senior, steps up to the tracks, watches the girl’s maneuverings. Lights—two perfectly round circles: smaller on top, larger on bottom—hover down the rails. A train whistle shouts. The girl startles, scuttles off the tracks.
Freshman, the boy thinks and smiles. He watches the girl’s ungainly descent, eyes her swollen belly. Freshman in trouble, he adds.
As the train roars by, the boy whips his head to the side, and hugs his books close.
*On the arcing crest of Auction Street Bridge, the mud-gazers gather. Bored with Elvis, unimpressed with Beale, the brightly-dressed tourists lean over the guardrail; their arrogant butts pooch out behind them. Mud, so recently intended to be the foundation of a million-dollar development, clogs the mouth of the Wolf River Harbor. None of the curious tourists were there when the too-heavy mud slid in a torrent from the unstable bank. But now they knowingly nod at each other, scoop pieces of ice from their watery drinks, and wait, poised.
Below the bridge, a bald-headed man squats on the muddy bank. He scoops mud into a jar, hugs the jar close. Over his head, the tourists launch their icy slivers into the wild blue yonder.
Down the way, at the real airport, a woman in headphones and heavy sunglasses directs a plane along the tarmac. Summer’s heat skitters across the burning asphalt. The woman, impatient, jerks a thumb at the lumbering plane, her seventh of the heated-up morning: the Memphis International is hopping.
Sometimes, the woman will banter with the baggage boys; the co-pilot will knock his knuckles on the window, give her a salute before taxing out. But today it’s business, business: exporting wilted tourists, importing fat cats in fancy suits, shepherding wandering children who’ve been sent aloft, alone, by the non-custodial parent.
The woman, beaten down by the exposed heat, is anxious to launch the silver streak into the wild blue yonder. She sighs and gives the dawdling plane her snappiest wave.
*In a South Memphis church, the dead woman is praised from the pulpit for her saintliness. The famous R&B singer-turned-Reverend sways and rocks, until he’s nudged aside by the woman’s play daughter who shouts her love to the rooftops.
“I wasn’t any blood of yours, but you took me under your wing, you named me as your own.”
“Tell it, Amen!”
“Comforted me in my unending sorrow.”
“The one who was there when all the others”—the play daughter levels her arm, sweeps it across the congregation—“runned away.” She points there and there and there, indicting the entire group.
The congregation bobs and weaves, shunts the blame back where they want it to lie. “Tell it so she’ll listen!” A woman hollers. “Dead or no dead!”
But the play daughter is worn out and slumps into her pew. The dead woman’s body is hefted down the aisle. The women of the church process forward, lift the baskets of multi-colored flowers, tote them behind the body. Except for one woman, a skinny white chick, who hesitates. A basket sits at the foot of her pew; she was only an employer; she doesn’t know the etiquette for a maid’s funeral.
The play daughter, disgusted at the self-consciousness, gives the dawdling white chick her snappiest wave. The chick grasps the handle of the over-flowing basket, parades down the aisle.
Directly north of the church, outside a shotgun shack on Second Street, two women struggle on the front steps with a dog. For three days the dog hasn’t looked well. Now, in the hot middle of the day, the old dog won’t go inside. One of the women hunches below the dog, pushes against its bottom. The other, a younger woman, has the dog around the neck, trying to encourage it up the front steps. The dog, a muscled-up Doberman, torques its body, flips the younger woman free from its neck. Gingerly, the dog backs down the sidewalk, then stops. Aloof, it waits for the next indignity.
It doesn’t wait long. The front legs crumple, the back legs splay. The dog heaves, dies on the front walk.
“Oh, Cally!” the older woman sobs.
“Now we got the heavy old dog dead on the front walk,” the younger woman says, but she’s wiping her eyes. “Dead on the front walk.”
The two women look around, like maybe a big strong man is about to come sauntering down the street. Instead, a gas truck—full of the public’s gas, powered by the public’s money—roars by. The two women stare, hands on their hips, as they wait for the uncaring to parade on by.
*Beyond the famous cobblestones, underneath the floating riverboats, into the deep-cut channel, the Mississippi River flows. Carrying more than it can handle, overwrought, the water slaps the land. The land retaliates, tossing corroded oilcans and twirling hubcaps into the churning flow. Disturbed, hidden dreams struggle ashore and lumber into the downtown streets. Stairs—one, two, three—fall from the sky. Fingers climb the threaded air, hand . . . over . . . fist, until, sighing, hope curls and settles its haunches. In the hovering jumble, Memphis breathes.
*v. ii. “hidden dreams struggle ashore . . .”
The old woman rummages in her Easy Way bag. The bus will be arriving soon, but something calls to her from deep within the paper’s folds. Delicately, she prods the contents of the bag, rolls each treat aside. There, cupped in the bag’s corner, are two golden orbs: fresh peaches as precious as the Golden Apples hanging from the mythic tree.
A boy, tall and slender and foreign as the night, crosses from the Walgreen’s, sits on the bench beside her. The woman holds out her hand. The gold ripened peaches roll on her weathered palm. The boy retrieves one, rubs its fuzzy skin against his cheek. He remembers the breathing ribs of a goat, covered with stiff, satiny hair. He smiles at the woman. She smiles back, gestures for him to eat the fruit.
He shakes his head, flips the offered gift into his pocket.
*The doctor waits for the delivery to begin. He’s thinking of his wife: married to him on her eighteenth birthday, his wife until the day she died. She hated the smell of the hospital, argued with him about why the whiff of antiseptic had to smell so similar to the stench of decay. “Air-freshener,” she’d say. “You need to make the air that new-born baby smells when it first comes into this world nicer.” Wanting pink and blue and bonnets and blankets, instead of blood and guts and the quiet un-sound of a child not crying.
The doctor turns toward the woman lying on the table. At least this one is young and healthy, a University of Memphis student. Tiny except for her big old stomach, probably made her ungainly, hard to walk these last few days. He smiles at the woman’s anxious face, nods encouragement. With any luck she’ll spit out a squalling, red-faced boy. Grow him up fat and happy, and love him unstintingly until the day he leaves her for a girl of his own.
That’s if luck holds. The doctor sighs, checks the chart for the girl’s name. To have at his fingertips, just in case he needs to coo ill-suited comfort.
He flips the remaining pages of the chart, stares at the writing that cannot hold his attention.
*The woman in the headphones and dark glasses wipes her brow. Around her, the tarmac pops and sizzles. A puddle jumper loads its passengers. No fat cats in suits, no wandering little children. All tourists. One wears a black leather jacket, shiny and new with Elvis gyrating on the back. Another—a woman in a red, shimmery dress—carries a tall plastic hurricane glass. Trailing behind her, a bald man with a sunburned pate lugs a jar of mud.
Later that night, after the woman removes her headphones and quits the burning tarmac, she and her boyfriend will lounge in their air-conditioned den, eating popcorn and watching TV. The woman will turn and stare at her boyfriend until she’s beaten back the show that holds his attention. She will say, “I swear to God: mud. In a jar. Mud.”
While she talks, the boyfriend will flick the channel changer, stop, and lick the popcorny salt from his fingertips.
*The play daughter swings her basket of flowers down the sidewalk. A rose spirals free, plops on the concrete. The delicate petals fold and bruise. The play daughter swings the basket harder, creates a lovely flowered trail in her wake. She’s wandered away from the funeral, taking her basket with her. The church women who’d stood at the graveside holding her up had pulled faces when she’d taken the basket, carried it off, but . . .
She arcs the basket over her head, swings it in a loop. The strength of the loop holds most of the flowers in place but some fly free, creating a lovely flowered rainbow in the air.. Here today, gone tomorrow, she thinks.
She stops her prancing. Lying at her feet on the sidewalk is a dead dog. Its big black body spreads. Staring eyes plead up at her.
“Dead, dead, dead. Ain’t nothing but dead today,” she says.
A sob. The play daughter looks up. An older woman, sitting on the steps of the house, is crying, wiping her eyes.
“Your dead dog?” the play daughter asks.
The woman nods.
The play daughter kneels beside the dog. She strips a rose, flutters the petals around the dog’s too-big paws. She coos, “You go on now, you hear. You gotta leave this place.”
The woman on the steps sighs, opens the screen door. In a minute, she returns with a glass of iced tea. She walks it down to the play daughter, gestures for her to take the glass.
The play daughter sobs over the dead dog, doesn’t see the offered gift.
*Beyond the famous cobblestones, underneath the floating riverboats, into the deep-cut channels, the Mississippi River flows. Carrying more than it can handle, overwrought, the water slaps the land. The land retaliates, tossing corroded oilcans and twirling hubcaps into the churning flow. Disturbed, hidden dreams struggle ashore and lumber into the downtown streets. Stairs—one, two, three—fall from the sky. Fingers climb the threaded air, hand . . . over . . . fist, until, sighing, hope curls and settles its haunches. In the hovering jumble, Memphis breathes.
*v.iii. “in the hovering jumble, Memphis breathes.”
In the hot shack, at the small square table, the old woman ladles soup from an iron pot. The soup bursts with the bounty of the Easy Way. The ladle she scoops and pours with she found in a dumpster behind a restaurant. The iron pot she got from her mama.
The woman pinches the lip of the full bowl, scoots it across the table to the boy, who waited, uncomplaining, while she peeled and shucked and chopped. She knew: her chopping knife moved slower than usual . . . because she was talking to him, and there wasn’t often anyone on the other side of her talking.
The boy stares at the soup floating, greasy, in its bowl. He swirls a pinkie through the offering. The grease spins and sparkles. He sucks his pinkie. The pinkie tastes good.
The old woman holds up a spoon, croaks “Spoon?”
The boy smiles, accepts the spoon, waits for the old woman to serve herself before he begins.
The slick tomatoes, the spicy beef, the soft carrots take him back not to Sudan but to the first meal he had in Memphis. Waiting at the Catholic Charities, he and the other boys were given a bowl of soup, tangy but sweet. “Barbecue.” The woman of Catholic Charities smiled, so proud of her new treat. When he tried to explain the way of barbecue in Southern Sudan, she frowned.
And that’s when the boy learned. It’s best to always smile back in ignorance, to nod your head up and down in pumped-up gratitude. To go along, get along and pretend that you never loved your own barbecue, that you never swam in the river with the slick water against your naked skin, that you never milked the warm milk from a bleating goat, that you never. You never, never, never.
*It is night. The woman from the airport dreams. In the dream, she stands on the skillet of a tarmac. A muffled roar engulfs her, for she’s without her headphones. The burning sun squints her eyes, for she’s missing her dark glasses. In the far-ranging heat, planes take off and land, except one. The plane, a straggler, wobbles down the runway, veers perilously close to the concrete’s edge. The woman—bereft of her tools of trade—waves franticly at the pilot, but the plane raises its wheel, tiptoes towards the grass.
There, in the spreading shade, it squishes its wheel into sloshing mud.
It curls its wings, dips the tips into the mud.
Splashing the cooling mud across its windshield, the plane beckons the woman. The tip of the nose opens, mouths, “Join me.” The woman hesitates on the burning tarmac, thinks, I have never seen a plane act like that in my entire life, never, never, never.
*The baby wails. The mother arranges its matted hair, jet black and squished against its skull. The nurses gather the clinking instruments. The doctor sighs, thankful for the infant’s loud, angry cries, after the spell of anxiousness, the clipped, “Doctor!” the held-breath waiting.
The mother raises the baby’s hand, pops his thumb into her mouth. The doctor understands: its time for him to leave.
The doctor turns.
“I’m sorry, doctor. What was your name?” The mother is struggling onto her elbow, trying to present better for a conversation.
“Nathaniel Marcel. I’m Doctor Nathaniel Marcel,” the doctor says. He frowns, doesn’t know why he’s frowning. He erases the frown.
“Nathaniel Marcel,” the woman says. She cocks her head at the baby. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to call him Nathaniel. Nate, maybe. For the one who brought him safely into the world.” She jiggles little Nate, eyes the doctor.
The doctor tears up, wipes the tears. The doctor says, “Well, I never. I never, never, never.”
*The play daughter is on the cell phone with her boyfriend, Harry, telling him, “Just someone’s dog. Get your butt over here. It’s important.” She snaps the cell phone shut. “He’d better get his butt over here,” she says and sits on the steps beside the younger woman. The older woman is standing on the sidewalk, eyeing the dead dog. A ring of flowers surrounds the dog where it lies.
“My play mama was fifty-seven. How old’s your dog?”
“That dog?” The younger woman ponders, scratching her cheek. “That dog’s old as the hills. It’s her dog. I’m just helping her with it. What happened to your play mama?”
“She died,” the play daughter says. “Ain’t that enough?”
The older woman lowers herself onto the sidewalk. She curls her legs around the dog. She’s rubbing the dog’s ear between her forefinger and thumb. She’s murmuring.
A car stops at the curb. A young man, good-looking, steps from the car. He stops on the grass, won’t walk onto the sidewalk where the woman is murmuring to the dead dog.
“That’s Harry,” the play daughter says, but she makes no move to call to him.
“Good looking,” the younger woman says.
“Where you want to put the dog?” the play daughter asks the woman.
The woman looks at her, skeptical. “You gonna have to be asking her that.” She points to the older woman, grieving for the dog.
The play daughter rises from the step, brushes off the backside of her dress. “Harry!” she gestures to the man, points to the dog. “We gotta be burying this dog.”
The younger woman turns her face aside, embarrassed at the play daughter for ordering her good-looking man around like that.
The older woman has leaned full-body over the dead dog. She’s hugging it.
Harry approaches. He squats beside the grieving woman. He rests his hand, gentle, on her shoulder. He whispers in her ear, his voice low as a summer breeze. He strokes the dog’s hot fur. He lifts the woman by the elbow, directs her back a step or two. He cradles the dead dog, supports its head with his strong arm, hefts the body into the air. The older woman points to the side yard, behind the gate, back where the day lilies shout in yellow. Harry takes a step, staggers with the weight of the dog, regains his footing. The older woman opens the gate, leads him into the burying ground.
On the porch, the play daughter shakes her head. “Who would’ve thought? I never. I . . .”
*Beyond the famous cobblestones, underneath the floating riverboats, into the deep-cut channels, the Mississippi River flows. Carrying more than it can handle, overwrought, the water slaps the land. The land retaliates, tossing corroded oilcans and twirling hubcaps into the churning flow. Disturbed, dreams struggle ashore and lumber into downtrodden streets. Stairs—one, two, three—fall from the sky. Fingers climb the threaded air, hand . . . over . . . fist, until, sighing, hope curls and settles its haunches. In the hovering jumble, Memphis never, never, never stops breathing.