Somewhere south of Memphis, Tennessee, in a torrid, insect-ridden land slashed by paths to nowhere, I found kindred spirits. How our crossroads surfaced out of the sticky night is a mystery of the jungle, not to be known by the traveler packed in among the objects of his existence.
It was late and the weather still clung to much of the South, according to my radio. I had turned off the station’s staticky voice in favor of my best un-Southern music on tape when my aching eyes abandoned their final attempts to remain open and I almost died in a ditch in a place with no name. I continued squeezing the brake after motion ceased, and the diner’s sign shone as brightly as the numbers on my digital dashboard clock.
Open All Night.
Coffee was the only cure for 01:44, so I carefully eased back off the lip of the ditch and drove along the shoulder into a parking lot guarded by two lamps. I sat there for a couple minutes, seeing reflections of my life in the mobile aluminum building and its lit but empty windows. The sense of vacancy was somehow enhanced by the violent cloud of bugs surrounding the lamp that stood between my car and the door, creatures so large I could feel their iridescent scissor wings on my face even before I opened the screechy door of my hatchback.
As my foot met concrete still hot enough to burn through the soles of my Jesus sandals, I saw an aproned woman appear over a slab of counter, face wondering what might be stirring out in the vapor. Her buzzing soldiers did a reconnaissance of me as I approached the entrance to her domain, each of them as long as my middle finger and tearing holes in and out of the aether. I knew I would scream if one attached itself to my clothes, scream like the wind must have screamed when it conceived the traveler that I was.
They withdrew as I reached the door as if they knew their limits, hovering on their opalescent blades, daring me to come out again. They would have to wait on that potentiality, however, for as I grasped the doorknob an instinct or a reflection made me glance back at the car, where a fiery glint of metal occurred behind the rear window. Shit, I thought, knowing the source was too valuable, particularly in these parts, to be left for the eyes of any night owls who might flutter by.
The insects were perturbed by my audacity, providing a hissing escort back to my car. As I opened the hatch to rearrange my belongings so that the curvaceous golden treasure was out of view, I lamented that the pawn shop hadn’t had a case to go with it. My fear of damaging the six-hundred-dollar used sax dissolved as I realized at least two of the mutant insects had infiltrated the car. Shit became fuck as I tried to shoo the monsters out, but my gesticulations only made them probe deeper into the heap of my possessions, until they disappeared from view altogether.
Slamming the hatch, I beat my way through the rest of their numbers to the diner’s door. The coffee seemed an afterthought now, albeit a necessary one, as I knew I could never leave this place without finding both the infiltrators, even if it meant removing every single object from the car. If one of them brandished its scissors while I was driving down the highway at fifty miles per hour, there was going to be an accident.
The interior of Open All Night was hotter than the cauldron outside, with grease for vapor, ketchup for ripened road kill, a blues blend for the night’s insectile symphonics. Somewhere out of the joint’s apocalyptic core seeped the smell of coffee, probably on the breath of the waitress/cook as I took a stool and she lavished her versatility upon me.
“W’ can I git fer ya, suguh? I’m a mind to cook up a batch o’ my famous pancakes if y’ve a taste fer the finer pleasures.”
“I’ll just have coffee, thanks.”
“Wuz ’at yew squealin’ rubbuh outside?”
I looked at the eighties medley of her hair and makeup, the pleasant neglect around her jaws and hips, the animal blood on her threadbare apron, and I confessed that yes, it was me.
“Tryin’ t’ woo the ladies, wuz ya?” she said, winking. She sauntered over to a pot that might have been yesterday’s brew. “So where y’all headed?”
“I am headed to Florida.”
“I been t’ Florda a time or two. Once on spring break.”
“Yeah,” I said, aware of the tenderness around my eyes. “Me too.”
“A little sugar, I guess.”
“W’ type o’ car ya sportin’?” Her back was to me as she spooned the sugar into the mug, but there was no confusing the question for other than one of manhood.
I looked out the window behind me and saw that the lamp brought only the slick metallic surface of my ride to view. “I’m sportin’ a rusted-out, fifteen-year-old Honda Civic with bad brakes and worse tires.”
I could see her shoulders tense as she stirred.
“At least during the week,” I added.
“Hmm?” she intimated as she turned, mug in hand.
“During the week, I drive that hunk of metal. On the weekend, I cruise in my Camaro.”
She hugged her suddenly dominating breasts as she leaned on the counter. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I said. And tasted black bitter hell in a cup.
I opened a packet of cream and poured it into the blackness. “You know, I’m not sure. I think the back half of it may be vintage.”
“The back haf—?”
“Would you mind zapping this a minute?” I said, handing her my coffee.
She clearly wasn’t decided about me, but took my mug anyway. “Zap?”
“Oh,” as she melted back to the core.
I wasn’t displeased to get out of there.
I walked out into the swarm of flashing knives with the expectation of gutting my car of its load. Instead, a whole other circumstance presented itself to me. Leaning against the side of my hatchback were two women somewhere around my own age, which hovered at the quarter century mark. One of them was black, slim, and out of place in her sleek, sleeveless party dress. The other was white and heavy in Mama Cass-like Bohemian attire, with a swagger that was evident even though she was idle.
As I stopped a few feet from the bumper, I had the strangest feeling that, wherever they had come from, whatever currents had landed them at my car, they were mine now. It made no sense, indeed smacked of all the witlessness that I carry around with me like a driver’s license. “Is there some reason you are leaning on my car?”
The slender girl, adjusting her form-fitting tube, spoke up. “Your tag says you’re from Tennessee.”
“So it does.”
“Would you be comin’ or goin’?” she said. “We ask because we’re on our way to Memphis and it would be mighty convenient if you could give us a ride. We’d be willin’ to foot the gas bill, of course.”
“Sorry, I left Memphis behind hours ago.”
“That’s too bad,” said the big girl. “We saw your saxophone and were sure we’d found a like soul.”
I glanced at the back of the car, where I knew I had at least put the instrument out of the lamplight. They must have been inspecting the wreckage of my life pretty damn closely.
“Why?” I said.
“Mm?” they said as one.
“Why does the sax make me a like soul?”
The white girl said, “We’re blues musicians, Milan and me. Milan sings and plays the bass and rhythm guitar. Myself—they call me Honey—I sing and work percussions. It just so happens we’re lookin’ for a saxophonist for our band.”
“The saxophone’s not mine. That is, I didn’t buy it for myself.”
“Who then?” said Milan.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but a girlfriend.”
“What happened to her?” Honey said.
“Happened? Did I say something happened?”
As I stood there demanding more from them than the knowing, sympathetic expressions they presented, my personal swarm of bugs formed a funnel around my incandescence. Unexpectedly, Milan lurched towards me, hissing through her pearly teeth, causing me to jump, scattering the insectile whirlwind into the darkness. Fuck became Holy God as I searched for my heart, suspecting that if given half a chance, she would take it from me and use it in a voodoo ritual. But as she relaxed again, grinning at me, the moment might never have been.
“So what’s your destination?” she said.
“Florida.” I stepped cautiously around to the driver’s door.
“It really is a shame,” said Honey. “I’m bettin’ you can play that sax better than you think you can.”
As I opened the door, which seemed like a terribly predictable motion, it hit me that I hadn’t taken care of the bugs that had stowed away. I sighed and said in a calm voice, “Listen, you two, I wish you the best in Memphis, but I’ve got other shit to deal with. Okay?”
“Is it the bugs?” said Milan.
I stared at her. “How do you know about that?”
“I saw one between the keys of your saxophone. Looked like a friend o’ the blues, if you ask me. I used to know somebody who’d put her cigarette inside the key guard like that while playin’.”
Couldn’t tell if it was the heat or her words that wouldn’t let any part of me but my lips move. “Tonya did that.”
They looked at me under finely arched brows.
“I watched Tonya play on two different stages. Both times she did exactly that.”
“Sounds like there’s a lot of energy surroundin’ that instrument,” said Honey.
“A lot of Tonya,” said Milan.
I hung there on my door, in all my witless magnificence, and said, “Tonya never even played that saxophone. I bought it for her birthday, but we fought. I left with the sax and all my belongings.”
“Will you take us to Memphis?”
My head seemed to shake without a signal from my brain. “You’re welcome to ride with me to Florida if you like. You’re more likely to find a gig down there where there’s less competition, anyway.”
“They don’t love the blues down there like they do in Memphis.”
“I met Tonya in a blues club on spring break in Panama City Beach, Florida.”
“Come to Memphis.”
“Will you be our saxophonist?”
“I know how to drive. I know the way to Florida. I don’t know anything about the saxophone.”
“Except your girl played,” said Honey.
Except my girl played.
God had she. It might have been the one deciding factor in my giving up my world for her. Milan, in the passenger seat, conjured the history out of me as I drove, clueless as to which direction we had decided on, my eyes swelling over empty glands.
My friends and I had been tossing back shooters that Ladies’ Night in the Boogie Woogie Blues Bar when the band’s saxophonist issued a challenge to anyone in the audience who thought they could outplay him. Tonya answered the call. She and I had already made eye contact in my dreams, and I was completely mesmerized by the possibility of the moment as she appeared on stage cuddling her wine cooler and daring to face the horn blower at his game. She stole the show as she stuck her cigarette in the key guard and played as if she were breathing her blood through the instrument. I fell in love with her at that moment, though I wouldn’t see her play the sax again until a year later, when a similar scenario—this time by personal invitation—played itself out in the Barking Dog Café on Beale Street. Her father and instructor had made a meager living there before surrendering his ghost to lung cancer.
I gave up my junior college basketball scholarship for her, walking on at Memphis University, where I was the last man cut from the team. We lived in a trailer at the edge of Bluesville while she continued her schooling and I mourned in the grocery bags that earned me my half of the rent. We squabbled over money and tiptoed around my bitterness until the last, one stormy evening when I packed everything, including the birthday present she would never see (and for which I had been saving for six months), and started for my family home of Springfield, Illinois.
Mirroring the turmoil of our relationship, the storm that seemed to carry me out of Tennessee would not die, eventually depositing me at a motel when I might otherwise have driven all night. It was on the next morning, by way of the motel TV, that I discovered a tornado had hit our mobile home community, destroying several homes and at last count, fourteen individuals. When the camera panned over the ruin where our trailer had stood, I knew instinctively that she was one of them. A strange torpor fell over me and I didn’t move from my seat on the bed until the front desk called to remind me it was past checkout time. As I reached the interstate ramps, I chose south instead of north, not out of any sense of duty or responsibility—I had little sense of anything at the time—but rather a compulsion to look a last time on the place where Tonya and I, in another lifetime, might have made it good. Arriving on the scene of devastation five hours later, I sat in my car at a distance and watched emergency personnel pick through the wreckage. When Tonya’s parents appeared on the scene, I left there and found an Econo Lodge, intending to face it all in the morning.
“Morning still hasn’t come,” I told my passengers. “Sunrise on the beach seemed far better.”
Milan put her hand on my hand, and I heard music through her skin. I heard Memphis, somewhere in our path, backwards or forwards. I asked her to sing for me and she did in a low, sexy, bluesy voice, with Honey chiming in from the backseat in a restrained alto. The night’s liquid depths seeped in and I told my passengers we had to stop at the next motel. I was too tired. I expected an argument—our destination was only a couple hours away, wasn’t it?—but they seemed to understand about the weariness. The weariness that went all the way down to the bones.
At three in the morning the lights of a roadside inn can look like anyplace, but I thought I recognized the neon curve of a saxophone as we crossed the humidity to the door.
They were lips as they had tasted that first time outside the Boogie Woogie Blues Bar, where we had gone to get fresh air, Tonya and me. Somehow, in spite of our drunkenness, our mutual desire, we managed to find the softest kisses amid the hint of salt (the memory of it always blends with the scent of the Mississippi River) on the air. Soft, soulful kisses.
As I opened my eyes to Milan, who lay on top of me, I saw that her deeply brown irises had a golden tint, as if they captured the sunrise that seemed so far away. Behind us, I heard the merest sound and tilted my head back to find Honey standing just behind me, whispering into my—Tonya’s—saxophone, which we must have brought inside with us. As Milan’s kisses fell on my neck and chest, I told Honey to play. But she shook her head and presented the instrument to me, an upside-down magical artifact unearthed by the heat, enduring even in this room suddenly so full of smoke and voices and music, blessed music like none ever known.
I heard the strike of a match.
Sizzling in space there for a second.
And then Tonya’s face retreating among the cheering unrecognizable others at the foot of the stage as I pulled on the cigarette once, exhaling, twice, exhaling deliriously, before sticking it between the keys of the beautiful sophisticated thing in my hand and…
My fingers had experienced these landscapes before, only they weren’t my fingers. My soul had breathed like this before, only it wasn’t my soul. I glanced to my right and saw Milan spidering along the bass strings with her expert fingers, looked behind me and found Honey working away on the drums, eyes closed, the memorabilia of former blues artists hanging on the wall behind her. I turned back to see Tonya pointing at me from among the faces at the foot of the stage, rolling her shoulders and shaking her hips and digging me so bad. I pushed my music down on top of her and she stole my smoke out of my sax and the silvery dream captured us both in its threads. I withdrew, teasingly, and the silken, elastic twine fell with me into the company of my fellow players.
Milan didn’t look like herself as I threw my sound in with hers, her eyes widening in a fierceness that I had witnessed once before, at some distant time, over the hood of a car. The rhythm she so masterfully commanded faltered as the digits of her hands lost their way and her limbs grew long and thin and glossy and her mandibles began chopping at the air between us. Behind me, the percussions grew sharper and more insistent, and I turned to find Honey’s jaws gnashing at my very neck. I dropped the saxophone as I fell into the crowd, Tonya’s hands catching me, then working to unsnarl me.
The noise of the audience dissolved into the hollowness in my ears, the tenderness around my eyes. The air spat with dawn as the green-blue of the sea appeared ahead of the headlights, a lazy sun approaching from the east. I heard a buzz and nearly instructed the brake accordingly, but the sound came from outside the car as a lamp along the street surrendered to the new day.
I glanced from the empty place beside me to the rear of the car, where I thought I saw, through the useless clutter of my possessions, the soft golden kisses of Tonya’s birthday present on the window.
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