While digging through a plastic storage box in my garage, I came across this fragment of a poorly-executed comic I drew many years ago, when I first arrived in Memphis:
Court Street, Memphis, Tennessee. Who knew there were twenty Court Streets, each one as derelict as the next? I wandered through each neighborhood, trying to look at numbers and not broken glass or other passing faces, all of whom seemed to be searching out my uncertainty. Finally, there it was: a U-shaped, two-story building, just one more lump of tan and gray concrete in a vast pool of tan and gray concrete at the edge of the Medical district of Memphis. The landlady occupied an apartment on the second floor. I knocked.
She was short, as gray as her surroundings, with a thick German accent. She eyed me suspiciously.
“Here about the apartment?”
“Two-fifty, first of each month. Hundred dollar deposit. Separate check. You vant furnish?”
I was fumbling with my checkbook.
“Furnish, furnish. It extra.”
She thrust her hands out behind her to indicate her own dingy furniture. My mental calculations took in the additional fee, a relatively high nausea factor, and the probability of finding something decent from a local Goodwill.
“Oh, oh—no, thanks.”
I wrote my two checks and handed them to her. She stared at them as if she wanted to bite them like an old coin. Then she folded the checks neatly, one at a time, and put them in her front shirt pocket. She stared at me, unflinchingly, with pale blue eyes held by fingers of wrinkles.
“I get you key.”
She disappeared, rummaging around in a back room, while I stood and waited, looking at the dark living area with its mustard colored sofa and plaid chair, a collection of newspapers and small glass bowls. Everything was at once orderly and drenched with grime. She began to shout while she moved boxes to reach some previously inaccessible location. She came out holding a small ring of keys, walking with a slight stoop and yet looking up at me with a cocked head, which gave her the appearance of a cautious bird.
“You on first floor. Your check no good, you no move in. You not pay, you move out. Got that?”
“Good. It not fancy place, but people look out for each other here, Miss Dobkowski.”
She pronounced it “Doob-kowf-ski”. She looked at me again with her penetrating avian glare. I smiled at her, and nodded, but I wanted to salute.
The next day there was a knock on my door: tonk, tonk, tonk. Out the big bay window with a view of the desolate courtyard I saw a swath of brightly colored fabric, but not much more. I opened the door to greet a friendly black lady.
“Well now. Look atchu. Nana just knew there were new people, and here you is. Jus moved in. Shoulduv brung a fruit basket! Are you settlin in alright?”
I swung my door open wider and smiled.
“As you see.”
“Oooh, child! Are you sleeping on the floor?”
“Beats trying to sleep on the ceiling.”
“Oh, hush. Sleeping on the floor, nothing in the kitchen, skinny little thing—you on the run or something? Naw, naw, don tell me. You all right, I can see that. I’m Nana, everyone here knows me. I live over on the second floor in two-one-eight, right across the way. This weekend I’m fittina make some spaghetti an steaks. Everyone is welcome. You like spaghetti an steak?”
I nodded. Spaghetti and steak?
“Jus come on by, and you’ll get yourself a plate.”
I looked over my shoulder at my kitchen. It was as bare as the rest of the apartment. Nana shook her head, as if wondering how the rest of the world went on without her at its door.
“Hey, thanks. It was nice to meet you.”
“Two-one-eight. Saturday afternoon.”
By Saturday I had made a few improvements. On my way back from the corner stop, I noticed an abandoned wheelchair in a deserted hospital parking lot. I checked it out. A little rusty, but otherwise sturdy and un-befouled by errant bodily fluids. I put my sack in the seat and started wheeling it back to my apartment, giving my diagnosis to the convenience store purchase.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Brown Bag, but you have only twenty minutes left to live. You see, you have a strange infection of something my colleagues and I have never seen before: Rose’s Pork Brains with Milk Gravy. We’ve decided to take you in for some expert analysis, but you likely won’t survive the operation.”
I started trotting with the chair, then stepping up on the back crossbars and coasting. An old fellow sitting on a stoop with a forty eyeballed me briefly before returning his interest to his liquor. When I got to my apartment, I moved my blankets out of the way and I parked the wheelchair with its brake so that it was facing out the courtyard. I sat. It was an odd view for such a big window: a parking lot and the other run-down apartments, with their red metal rails and barren doors.
Tunka tunka tunka tunka tunka. It was a sharp, almost fervent rhythm coming from upstairs that interrupted my thoughts. It was as if someone was pounding on the floor (my ceiling), but the vibration was more elongated than that which would come from a hammer. Almost like a rocking chair, but a great deal faster.
Tunka tunka tunka tunka tunka. I gave the noise a good glare, as if extinguishable via eyesight. Tunka tunka tunka tunka tunka. Tunka tunka tunka tunka tunka. My wheelchair creaked and gave a jitter itself when I heaved myself out of it, as if unused to the ambulatory. Time to visit apartment 218.
I didn’t have anything in particular to bring, but I wanted to ask Nana about the brains, so I left the can in the bag after taking one last glance at the bright Rose’s label. Were the eggy lumps the brains? Or were they meant to be mixed with eggs? And milk gravy? What wondrous porcine thoughts stewed in this?
Walking out my front door, I noticed a youngish male face peeping out of the heavily curtained window of the apartment next to mine, what would be closer to the bottom of the U. He scowled and shut the curtain hurriedly.
I looked towards the stairs and ascended. At the top of the stair, a plaque on the closest door read 218.The door opened before I could knock.
“Oh, there you are! You’ve come for Nana’s spaghetti an steak. And what’s this you brung me?”
“Well, uh…only if you want it.”
“Ooooh, brains! I love some pork brains wit mah eggs. Nahw, how did you know?”
“Well, everythin’s all ready, but I sure could fix us a helping of pork brains if you had especial feelings for some?”
“Ah, no. That’s for you. I definitely want the spaghetti.”
Nana was beaming as she slid a plate out from her cupboard and dug into an impossibly large kettle of sauce-drenched spaghetti. An equally large kettle lay stacked with thin but large steaks, fried, greasy, but smelling of barbeque and good, practiced seasoning. Nana dished more food than it seemed the plate could handle, much less my stomach, but I vowed not to disappoint her, as long as my gut did not disappoint me. Holding the plate, standing with a fork , waiting for some idea of what to do next or where to begin on an absurdity of food—suddenly the door opened.
“Oh, you again.”
Besides myself and the German landlady, this was the only white person I had seen in this neighborhood in some days. He looked like a younger version of my crazy uncle Eddie in New Jersey.
“Got my plate.”
He held it up for proof.
“Mmm-hmm. Licked it clean, ah spose.”
“Like a great big puppy dog!”
He started an impression, lapping the plate like a hound, his eyes up at the ceiling. She swatted him.
“Oh git. Get s’more fixins or get on out.”
“Arright, Nana. Who’s this? She gonna eat that or what?”
I had been transfixed by the interaction and was politely waiting for its conclusion.
“This the new girl.”
“Hi. I’m Alix.”
“Hi Alix. I’m Chuck. Why don’t you take that on down and eat with me an my girlfriend?”
“Oh. Uh, okay. Nana?”
“Oh, you go on down. I’ve already eaten. And you…”
She was talking to Chuck.
“You b’have, y’hear?”
“I always behave!”
“Steph, we got company!”
“You get more food?”
Chuck’ girlfriend was heavy lidded, quite pretty; if a little overweight, and dressed in acid-washed denim. From neck to ankle. She looked up at me and smiled knowingly.
“He’s such a shit, huh? Got any smokes?”
“Oh, yeah, sure.”
I tossed her one, while I considered whether her first comment was meant to be positive or negative. I looked around their version of the apartment. Their sofa was big and puffy and beige. They had a glass-top coffee table. There were bunches of half-smashed Budweiser cans in little stacks—next to the sofa, on the table—that resembled sprouting plants that didn’t quite make it. Each of the apartments I had seen so far resembled each other far less than I would have imagined possible for nearly identical floor plans.
Chuck split up his one heaping plate like mine into two smaller ones: more steak and less spaghetti on one, vice versa on the other. He clattered Steph’s plate in front of her (spaghetti) and began to slice into his steak, chewing noisily. Chuck was a little hyper.
“So, whachya’ll doin here?”
I started to explain about my intent to travel and write.
“Oh yeah? I never was much of a reader myself, but sometimes I write a little poetry, don’t I Steph?”
“He sure does. He’s a natural.”
“Wow. That’s really cool.”
I was suddenly distracted with vaguely frightening thoughts about what his poetry might sound like.
“Hey, maybe you could look at some sometime and tell me if it’s any good.”
I tried to sound enthusiastic.
Chuck and Steph sat next to one another; pawing and bickering, sniping and molesting—like a youthful, more cheerful version of George and Martha. When I started to feel more voyeur than guest, I excused myself.
“Come back sometime!”
“Hee hee hee!”
I waved to the pair on my way out. As I crossed the parking lot to my apartment, I noticed the curtain in the window next to mine draw back again. Again a scowling face and the swift return of the drape, obscuring it.
Laying down on the floor on a pallet of blankets I listened to the long swinging whine of sirens as I drifted off to sleep.
I had finally made it to Memphis.