Volume 3 Number 1 • Spring 2011

Gerald Duff

The Light in Memphis

They would be coming, Beulahdene Jackson knew, and she knew that fact in her bones, the same way she could predict the onset of heavy weather even on a day the sun was shining bright and the air tasted clear and sweet in Memphis on the river. Something inside whispered to her not in words but a feeling, and Beulahdene had come to trust the truth in that feeling over the years, that thing like a small sickness or pressure around her heart. And it had a color, and that color was a shade of light yellow. Words could and would lie, but that feeling did not. Falsehood was not in it.

Whether they would come more than one at the time, Beulahdene Jackson did not know. It could be two, three, four, not likely more than that. It could be just the one. And if only one, that would carry the most weight and the greatest menace. Knowing that was a feeling, too.

They would not have come a few years before, not there to the corner of Montgomery and Peach, where Beulahdene had been able to buy the little house where she had lived these years since. The government check had started coming back then, and with what she had saved from the money she had made working for all the white ladies in their houses in Midtown over the years, she had been able to put enough down to move into the brown house on the corner, the one with siding and the front porch and the backyard where she had grown tomatoes and okra for a long time. Not anymore now, though.

When Beulahdene Jackson moved in, many of the Jewish people who walked to their church each Saturday, what they called a synagogue, had lived in the neighborhood still. Some of them, anyway, and everything was kept up, and the yards were mowed, and any window that was broken in any house was always replaced the next day. Walls were painted, new roofs were put on, the sidewalks were not all broken up by sycamore and oak tree roots. No pieces of glass scattered in the street got left there long.

But a new synagogue was built by the Jewish people, somewhere out in East Memphis, and they all moved away so they could walk to that new one on the weekends, since they couldn't drive their cars to it. Why they couldn't drive to church in all the big cars they owned and drove everywhere else Beulahdene never did get straight. But they couldn't for some reason, and that was their business and none of hers. So she didn't let that worry her mind.

But they had left, almost all at once, and everything changed in the neighborhood. The old synagogue was now where the white Baptist young folks went to learn how to be preachers, though it looked the same as it ever did, except for the signs in the front of the building. The foreign writing the Jewish people had carved on the building itself was still there, saying whatever it said that nobody could read but them. But they weren't there to read it anymore, the Jewish people, and Montgomery and Peach was not the same place it had been when Beulahdene Jackson moved into the little brown house. No more tomatoes in the backyard, no more families walking to the synagogue at the end of the week, no more okra in the hot Memphis summer, sticky to the touch when you cut it off the stalk.

A little boy knocked on the front door first thing that morning, right before seven o'clock. Beulahdene Jackson didn't open her door to see what he wanted, knowing better, but she got a chance to study him close by looking through a crack between the lace window curtain and the edge of the window frame off to the side.

He was a light-skinned boy, and he looked nice, even sweet in his face as he stood turning his head from side to side trying to look through the pane of glass cut into the door. That was not a good thing to have in your door when the house was located where it was, on the corner of Montgomery and Peach. The policeman who had had the meeting with the neighbors that still lived there had told Beulahdene that directly when he had done the inspection for security measures on everybody's house, the ones still being lived in. That's what he called it, security measures. And he called it community outreach, too.

“That there piece of glass is an entryway, Ma'am,” he said to her, pointing at Beulahdene's door and writing it down on the piece of paper which he had left with her later on. Everybody got their own piece of paper, everybody living there who went to the meeting with the police officer. Beulahdene put the form, the inspection report, in that top drawer of the chest in the bedroom where she slept, the place she kept all of her important papers. The letters from the Social Security, the insurance form for her house, the agreement she paid on every month for the burial arrangements for when the time would come when the Lord decided to finally do what He had to do. There were letters there, too, from kinfolks and from David, but she didn't read them anymore much. They were in her head already and had been for a long time. She didn't have to look at letters now.

“I'd say you need to get you a new door, Mrs. Jackson,” the policeman said. “A steel one, like the one you got in back. That'd be my recommendation.”

“Yes sir,” Beulahdene told him, smiling at herself for calling somebody “sir” who looked no older than a child, and knowing she wouldn't do what the policeman recommended about the front door to her house. That pane of glass was small, but it let in the light, and you could look through it and see whoever was passing on the street outside, going up and down Montgomery, summer and winter. If you wanted to, that is, though there weren't many people going by a person would want to see anymore these days, not on Montgomery Street.

The little boy was wearing those pants like they do now, too big by several sizes for what would fit him, almost falling off of him as he stood on the front porch, his hand up the pane of glass to shade his eyes so he could see inside Beulahdene's house into the front room. He didn't look long, though, and as he left the porch, hopping down on the sidewalk without using the steps, Beulahdene could see through the crack beside the curtain that his big pants were so long in the leg the cuffs were frayed and worn out from dragging on the concrete wherever he walked.

“Lord Jesus,” Beulahdene Jackson said out loud, “hold my hand.”

He is little, she told herself, he's just a child trying to find a little yard work to do to make him some spare change to jingle in his pocket. Or to buy him a treat, an ice cream or a bottle of pop in this hot weather, that's what he wants, what he's looking for, that's all it is to it.

But as she washed the dishes she had used for breakfast and ironed herself a blouse and a house dress and the towels she had been meaning to get around to for a week, she sang over and over a hymn, He Comes to the Garden Alone, to keep her mind occupied.

I'll look at all my papers in that drawer this morning, she told herself, check on everything being where it ought to be. I will dust every surface in my house this morning where it ain't been touched for two weeks. I've been letting down too much here lately. A bad habit will come on you before you know it if you don't keep things up to where they ought to be.

He's real young, she said to herself, he's a little boy, he don't mean nothing, he's just working his way down old Montgomery Street this morning, door to door to door, looking for an odd job.

Randall Eugene McNeill felt the braided wire pulling him slowly but steadily toward the mouth of the cave, struggle against it however much he did or could do. The wire was fastened somehow to his feet, around both ankles, with enough slack to allow him to move his feet apart eight or ten inches, but no more than that.

Although he couldn't see the wire in the dark, Randall Eugene McNeill knew its colors, three strands to the braid – one red, one black, one green – and he knew that if he were pulled feet first through the opening of the cave into the passage into the earth, dark and musty and cold behind it, that he'd never see light or feel fresh air moving across his face again.

A whine was forced through his lips without Randall Eugene willing it, and that frightened him more than anything else about what was happening, more than the wire braided red, black, and green, more than the hole of the cave mouth, framed by boards like those set around a window, more than the dank, dark passage leading somewhere beneath the ground, more than the fact that he couldn't move and his arms lay dead beside him no matter how much he told them to push his hands down toward his feet. Take it off, unwind it, Randall Eugene begged his arms and hands, get it away from my feet. Don't let it pull me, don't let it drag me underneath the ground.

Calling on all he could of his waning strength, forcing his lips apart as far as he could manage, Randall Eugene tried to cry out, but the sound he was able to make was weaker than the whine that had been pried from him, and he felt a sickening lurch as the braid of wire pulled him further toward the window into the cave, the dark mouth into the earth, the teeth of boards framing it.

“Why can't you get up, sleepy-head?” his mother was saying. “I'm about to pull your little toe off, Randall Eugene, and you still won't stop trying to sleep.”

“Mama,” Randall Eugene McNeill said, “it's you, it's just only you.”

“Who'd you think it was, baby? One of your girlfriends?”

“No, I ain't got no girlfriends,” Randall Eugene said, pushing his hand toward the foot of the bed where his mother stood. She was dressed for work and ready to leave the house, a raincoat covering all of her uniform and her purse hanging from a strap on her shoulder. Her hair was combed out straight, and her make-up was on.

“Don't talk like that, son,” she said. “You know better than that.”

“Well, I ain't got no girlfriend. I'm just telling the truth.”

“Don't say ain't no. Who're you trying to fool? You weren't raised to speak that way, and you do know better. Anybody hearing you who didn't know any different would never believe you're in that gifted and talented program.”

“All right, I'll do it,” Randall Eugene said. “I'll get up.”

“You've got a lot to do today, remember, Sugar. You have the counselor to see this afternoon, and don't you forget to tell her what I said about your meds.”

Randall Eugene began to speak, but didn't, stopped by the way the wall of his room across from his bed looked different somehow. Had his mother changed it in some way, put different paper on it, painted a design where there was only a pale blank space before? There was a pattern evident now, regular small squares in alternating colors, black and red, changing as he watched them to separate shades of gray.

“Why did you do that?” Randall Eugene said, pointing toward the wall by lifting his head as though to indicate with his chin what he wanted her to see.

“Do what? What're you talking about? That picture over there? The one of LaFrance? Is that what you mean?”

“No, nothing,” Randall Eugene said, watching the pattern on the wall shift from squares of gray back toward white, fading quickly into blankness again as though to vanish before his mother would be able to see what was happening before her in her own house. Another thing that he knew only he could detect, a state of change which always eluded everybody but him. She couldn't see it. She wouldn't see it, and if she did, she'd be afraid to admit it. “I guess it's just the way the light's doing.”

“As little light as you let get in this room, I don't know how you see to find your way around. When you were little, you couldn't let enough light get through your windows to satisfy you. Now you act like an old bear trying to hibernate.”

Randall Eugene picked up the shirt his mother had put across the foot of his bed while he was asleep and looked at her.

“You're allowed to speak, young man,” she said. “The polite thing would be to say mama I need to get dressed now. And if you did that, I'd leave the room. But I know if I do, you'll just crawl back under the covers and go to sleep.”

“No, I wouldn't,” Randall Eugene said. “I used to would've done that, but not no more.”

“You couldn't sleep again last night, honey?”

“I could sleep all right, but I didn't want to. What I'd like to be able to do is never go back to sleep again. That's what'd satisfy me.”

“If you keep going to that counselor lady and taking your meds, you'll grow out of this, Randall Eugene. I know you would. It's just a stage of development.”

“Don't call it meds. I hate it when you call them that. And don't say development.”

“You hate it when I say anything these days. Meds is what it is. I know what I'm talking about. Now get up and get dressed and do it quick now. Eat your breakfast and be ready in fifteen minutes. I've got to be in the surgical unit in less than an hour. Move it, Randall.”

I know why the window, Randall Eugene told himself as he watched his mother leave the room, I know that part all right, up and down and sideways and backwards. But why the rest of it? A cave, a cave? A frame around the hole? Wires on my feet? The wall moving?

I have got to cool down, he lectured himself as he dressed and walked by the plate on the table in the kitchen where she'd left something for his breakfast. He picked it up, not looking at whatever was there, and succeeding in scraping it into the garbage pail under the sink without having to see what it was. He couldn't avoid hearing the sound it made, though, as it hit something flat in the garbage container, a piece of cardboard maybe. It splatted, it sounded heavy and wet, and Randall Eugene's stomach dipped and rose as though it was headed all the way to his throat.

I have got to cool down. I've got to get something else into my head, something big enough that nothing can get around it, nothing can make me think, not a sound, not a sight, not a smell.

They'd said he wouldn't do it. Antwan mainly, standing there laughing, his teeth so white when he threw back his head to show how funny he thought it was.

“Dog,” he said, “you ain't going to do shit. You too much of a white man to do nothing but talk.”

“Naw, naw, wait a minute,” Damon said. “Do Run Run be going to show us something. Show us some shit, ain't you, Do Run Run?”

“You got that right,” Randall Eugene said, all of them standing there on the steps going up to the big doors in front, the ones under the stone carved with the Gothic letters spelling out Central High of Memphis. “You just watch my natural ass.”

“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” Damon said, “Do Run Run going to show us something, all right. He going to show us his vocabulary.”

Then they all laughed and fell about the steps, spinning and staggering like they were about to fall, hands thrown up in the air, pushing, pushing, pushing. Three white girls coming up the steps toward them changed the way they were walking to take a path further away, and Randall Eugene saw that Amy Amonette was one of them. She looked right at him, and he looked off as though he didn't see her, but he knew she could tell he did. He turned his back to her, but he could feel her eyes sliding off of him, and he heard her say something to one of the other ones, Elizabeth Hubbard, maybe.

“Fuck that monkey shit,” Randall Eugene McNeill said to Damon. “Dog, you don't know what's up with me.” The street in front of the steps was doing it again, slow this time, but Randall Eugene knew if he let it know he saw it, the street would do it more and more quickly, too fast for him to keep up and hold it contained in his eyes and then the sound would start up. He couldn't afford the sound this morning, not today. Don't look at it, move your eyes away and face the building, but don't hurry so it'll be able to know you see. Look at the words cut into the stone above the door. Let the stone keep your eyes. It's not moving.

“Unh uh,” Antwan said. “That ain't the word, that ain't what we waiting to hear you say. Don't say fuck. Say something like molecule. Say economic trend, Do Run Run, say economic trend. Say honors program.”

That's when they really laughed, and he walked off down the steps, taking them three at a time, and by the time he was down to the street, all of them had turned to head into the building, Damon saying over and over, monkey shit, monkey shit, fool, fool, fool.

When Randall Eugene stepped up on the porch, he could see her peeping at him from where she was looking out from a crack in her curtains, thinking she was hidden from anybody standing in front of the door. The light of the early morning sun hit her glasses, and he couldn't see her eyes, and he was glad of that.

Randall Eugene kept looking straight ahead, but he was still able to see the curtain to his left move just a hair, so he leaned forward and put his hand up to shade the glass part of the heavy wooden door. It was too dark to see anything inside, standing as he was in the bright sunlight, but the old lady couldn't tell that.

Seeing him do that would scare her, Randall Eugene thought, and it would keep her indoors with all her locks fastened. When he went back to school, getting there late and coming into the classroom where the officers of the Bones Family, Antwan and Damon and Ja'Nce, would be sitting against the back wall in a row, one-two-three, he'd be able to tell them the house he'd picked out had somebody in it, watching too close for him to go inside.

“Motherfuck,” he'd say, “if I'm going to have some old bitch call the blue knockers on me for busting out a window. I want it to count for something when I be breaking in. I want to be able to take my time, do a little shopping for a thing to show you dogs, something worth something, to prove out where I been. Word up.”

Yeah, Randall Eugene told himself trotting across Montgomery to the other side of the street, that'll work, get them notified I mean business. I ain't just moving my mouth up and down to keep the flies off my face. I be meaning to show I'm Bones material, and I mean to do it big.

He'd just hit the curb with the sole of his shoe, when it happened and it caught him before he could get up all the way onto the sidewalk and out of the hold of the pattern in the cement of the street. How had it happened so fast that he couldn't see it taking place? That was the fastest it had ever been, and that told Randall Eugene that the pattern had been deceiving him ever since it started up. It had always been able to move too fast for him to stop it, to hold and contain it, and put himself at a distance from it. When the pattern wanted to set up like cement in the sun, it could have done that, and the reason it hadn't was that it wasn't ready yet. It was waiting until he stopped being so afraid of the pattern and had come to believe he could live with it, and it would move then when it was ready.

Here on Montgomery Street the pattern this morning had decided it was time, and it let him get almost all the way out of the street and up onto the sidewalk before it took him. But now it had, and he was in a pawn's position, and the hand when it wanted to move him would do that. It would give him up for an advantage or not for one, maybe throwing him away just to fool the white king and make him think he was winning. The question is not where it will move me, Randall Eugene said to himself. I know that. The jar the curb gave me traveled up my leg and told me that. What I don't know is when, and the pattern knows that, and it wants to think about that, along with the message it told the muscles and blood and bone of my leg.

I know a thing and I know it is true, from the sole of my foot to the pit of my stomach to the top of my head, Randall Eugene whispered to himself, straining to listen to the one talking to him. The message lodged in a spot just behind a part of his skull directly above his eyes, and it brought with it the look they would have on their faces as he tried to explain why he still hadn't done it, still hadn't done the deed he had to do before they'd let him in, before he would be able to feel both parts of his brain come together and touch and be one with each other like the white and yolk of an egg in the same shell.

“Do Run Run,” Antwan would say, “go sit over yonder with the rest of the bitches and read some shit out of a book. Read it real loud and nice, say it like a white girl doing a book report.”

Randall Eugene could see himself listening to them laugh at what Antwan said and waiting for the next one to say what he'd thought up, something even better than that, all of them ready to call him what he was.

He stepped off the sidewalk on Montgomery Street, taking himself away from the broken shards of clear glass and the cracked pieces of concrete, now part of the pattern which had been following him and waiting for him to know and allow he was part of it. Randall Eugene lifted both hands to his forehead to press the scene he'd imagined to come at Central High School back into his head along with the other ones already there, all the ones telling him he was a freak and a misfit and a white boy and a bitch and a final piece of the pattern waiting to step into the pawn position and be one with it. He looked up into the hot blast of sun hanging over Midtown Memphis, and he spoke out loud to it.

“Fuck it,” Randall Eugene McNeill said. “I'm going back over to that lady's house, and I'm going in, and I'm bringing something back out with me to show their punk asses what kind of a man they messing with.”

And that he said out loud, and the other words he whispered to the evidence of the pattern on the wall in his room and in the concrete of the street and in all the tools and formulas and equations and translations in the world, and those words he said but could not hear and heard but could speak and understood but could not know.

But when Randall Eugene got inside after the pattern had moved him there, the inner side of the door behind him, the air in the house smelling of where an old lady lived – paper flowers, some kind of chemical, maybe a floor cleaner, old toast, stale and burnt, a still dead odor of things shut up and sealed away in plastic wrap – nobody was home. Nothing told him to be quiet getting in, so he hadn't tried to be, breaking the window set in the door with a brick from the ones lining a flower bed, hammering it hard and hearing the glass fall inside to the floor, snaking the wire of the coat hanger down, down to where it caught the deadbolt and flipped it up, a hard sharp sound in the middle of the morning.

He went directly to the small dark colored table against the wall, watching his hands pick through the accumulation of things set there, placed by somebody in a shape to show them off. Pictures of men and women and children in funny clothes, everybody dressed up pretending to be young but showing they couldn't be by the way their eyes looked staring into the camera lens, dead for years but trying not to be and fooling nobody. A framed letter, medals with ribbons fastened to them, a coin, a necklace, a pin carved with a white woman's head. Paper weights made of colored glass with flower petals frozen in the center of them, blooming forever, but dead, dead, dead.

From all this collection, Randall Eugene's hand picked up one thing, a book bound in leather with two words made of curlicued letters on its cover, and his hand lifted the book to show it to his eyes to read, and the words said Precious Memories, and his eyes read that but his brain would not tell him what that meant, and he knew he had to understand it, and he believed if he looked a little harder and longer, the meaning would come to him and say its name.

It hung there on the surface of his sight, almost connecting, but it never did, because she was in the room now, and Randall Eugene knew he would never be able to take its meaning now because she spoke, and her words got in the way of letting him know what Precious Memories meant.

“Son,” she was saying, “son, don't touch that, don't take my book, you hadn't got any use for that.”

She held a butcher knife in her hand, and it should have been trembling because the woman was old and afraid, but it wasn't. A shaft of sunlight from the window broken in the door touched the edge of the blade, and it hung there steady as a stone set in a ring, winking with light, and Randall Eugene watched himself step toward her and take the knife out of her hand.

What will it do now, he wondered, my hand with the knife in it, the wink of the sun gone now from the blade edge, and then it showed him, all the light in the room did, gathered into one beam, like it does when someone is on a stage ready to begin an act or sing or dance or play an instrument, and it showed him what he would do and it let him see him doing it.

And then the old woman was lying on her sofa, but it wasn't like she was asleep. No, she was falling halfway off the piece of furniture, but her fall was frozen in a way it couldn't be, a way gravity wouldn't allow. How could she do that, Randall Eugene said to himself, amazed by the act the old woman could perform, stop in mid-air halfway to the floor, holding, holding, holding everything in the room fixed and set and captured like one of the pictures on the table of the old people pretending to be young and alive and smiling, though they were dead.

“Go on, now,” a man said in a deep voice. “You've done what you came to do, son. You've got what you wanted. It's in your hand now. You have it to carry all by yourself.”

Randall Eugene knew the voice, and he knew the man, and he had for as long as he could remember, and the man was standing in the entryway to another room.

Randall Eugene had not seen that room before, how had it gotten there, he had looked that direction before, hadn't he, when he came into the place where he found himself now?

He was dressed like he always was, the man in the entryway – a dark suit, a shirt so white you wanted to look away from it to save your eyesight, a tie with broad muted stripes – and he was solid and bulky across the face and forehead, and his cheeks and chin shone from being freshly shaved, the thin mustache two precise lines above his lips, large and prominent and parted to speak.

“Dr. King,” Randall Eugene McNeill said. “I have always wanted to meet you, but I thought I never would be able to.”

The man nodded once, but his eyes did not move from where they were fixed on Randall Eugene's eyes, and then he lifted one hand and held it out as though to take the leather book from Randall Eugene.

“My name is Randall Eugene McNeill,” he said, speaking as if he was introducing someone whose name he had heard only once and had to concentrate to remember. “Dr. King, I'm Randall Eugene, that's me.”

“No,” the man in the entryway to the other room said, “you're not him, young man. Your name is Do Run Run.”

And then the blood, just a thin line, began to come from the knot of the man's striped tie, the place where the bullet had struck Dr. King on that balcony in Memphis, the one at the Lorraine Motel, and Randall Eugene watched it grow like a flower blossom, a red carnation like the ones in the corsages the girls wore to the Central High prom, and it was stronger and wider and deeper, and the blood was a stream now, not a flower at all, and it moved in steady spurts.

All the light in the room began to gather into one point, which twisted and glowed so brightly that Randall Eugene had to close his eyes or be blind, but he could still see it through his lids, moving past his face now, and he followed it as it floated up and out a window set high in the wall, and Randall Eugene knew he must follow, and he did, and he watched himself take two strong steps and leap from the floor, the leather book held before him as he went through the glass and frame of the window, following the ball of light outside, and now it was gone, and the sky was as black as midnight, as dark as Dr. King's suit and the blood against it.

The light was gone forever, and Randall Eugene knew that, he knew that was true, as true as the leather book he now had to carry in his hands into the pattern worked into the street that ran before him through all the world.

Gerald Duff has published his fiction in Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Missouri Review, Southwest Review, Indiana Review and other magazines. His most recent book, a collection of short stories, Fire Ants and Other Stories, was a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters award for the best book of fiction of 2008. His memoir, Home Truths: A Deep East Texas Memory, will be published by TCU Press in 2011.