James Pate is a fiction writer and poet who grew up in Memphis. He has an MFA from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and his work has appeared in La Petite Zine, storySouth, Cream City Review, Black Warrior Review, New Delta Review, Blue Mesa Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Pembroke Magazine, and Bayou Magazine, among other places. He is the author of The Fassbinder Diaries (Civil Coping Mechanisms), a collection of micro-fiction. His book Flowers Among the Carrion: Essays on the Gothic in Contemporary Poetry is forthcoming from the Action Books. He teaches at Shepherd University.
A birthday party at the Knights of Columbus hall on Jackson Avenue: men in their fifties and sixties with cigarette smoke swirling over their heads, and several balloons underfoot. A priest with three fingers on his right hand talking on his cellphone in the corner. I had brought my stepfather Mike there. Mike, sitting in his wheelchair, singing songs. Mike, with his long, slender hands flying across the keyboards. Tennessee Waltz followed by Midnight Train to Georgia followed by The Gambler. One of the younger men approached me, a guy who looked to be in his late forties, and asked me how I knew Mike. When I told him he was my mother’s last husband, the last of four, the guy arched an eyebrow in surprise. Mike is black and I’m white. The guy was black himself, one of the few black men other than Mike in the room. He said, “Mike’s got a voice. He really does. It’s just like syrup.”
I nodded. “He’s got a real gift.”
The man lit a cigarette, eyed some buddies at a nearby table playing Black Jack. “You take care of him, you hear?”
“I’ll do that,” I said.
By nine the party was wrapping up. I unplugged the cords to the speakers and keyboards and Mike was talking and laughing with the group of men standing around him and through the open windows you could hear traffic flow by on the wet streets. Mike spoke about an ex-girlfriend, a woman named Monica. I’d heard the story before. Monica moved into Mike’s house in the early eighties after six months of the two dating. A week in, she told him she was dying. Heart trouble. The doctor said it was serious and here she was, only twenty-nine. Mike held hands with her at the kitchen table, and they cried, and drank. He asked why she didn’t tell him earlier. She said she thought he never would’ve started caring for her if she had. Mike told the guys, “It tore me up when she said that. As if she ever thought I would be that kind of man.”
Silence in the room: silence and the smell of cigarettes and rain.
One of the guys asked, “What happened to her?”
“Didn’t even make it to Christmas,” Mike said in his graveled voice. “She died in her sleep, right next to me. Third day of December, nineteen eighty-four.”
During this time I'm describing, I was nearing forty, with an ex-wife and eight year old son in New Orleans. I’d returned to Memphis six years before after everything between Isabel and myself had gone to hell, and I’d found a job teaching art classes at a Catholic school near Overton Park. When I first came back to Memphis I spent almost every night in a bar, drinking whiskey on the rocks and playing pool. And then one night a man came out of nowhere in the parking lot and struck me so hard with the butt of his gun I blacked out. Doctors gave me six stitches. The nurse in my room said with a little more force, the blow could’ve done real damage. She told me only the week before a guy with my build had been brought in with a similar injury: he couldn’t say his name without thinking about it. Not anymore.
The next months, I hid in my apartment. Drank alone, watched TV alone. Between the mugging and the missing Isabel, I was lost, and the world seemed like a flat, brute place no could rightfully call home. All night, I waited for day, and every day I couldn’t wait for night. At school, I would lock myself in a stall in the basement bathroom, breathing deep and rubbing my hands over my face. In bed, in the dark, my fingers kept touching the curve of my skull where the wound had been. One night, I got a call from Mike. “How you holding up?” he asked. He knew about the mugging. When I’d returned to Memphis, I started dropping by his place every couple of weeks.
I told him the truth over the phone. I had been drinking for hours and was drunk enough to be honest with him.
I could hear him thinking. He lived in the bungalow he and my mother had dwelled in as husband and wife, a small brick cube with Bradford pear trees growing in the yard and a row of tigerlilies under the front windows. He said, “You need to stay over here a few nights, you’d be more than welcome. There’s that spare room back there and it’s not like I get many guests these days.”
So I did. I stayed with Mike for a week. He was already limping then. Groaning at each step. But there were still some years to go before his fall, and the broken hip, and the fuckedup surgery, and the wheelchair.
On the ride back from the Knights of Columbus hall, Mike removed his corduroy cap and ran his hand through his hair and placed his cap back on. We were passing a used car lot with red lights glowing in its windows, the night sky large as the universe above it. Mike said, “I’m leaving here, Gary.”
“Leaving where?” I suspected Mike was in one of his morbid moods, when he talked of death as if it were a cup of warm cider that gently relaxed you into eternity.
“I’m leaving Memphis. I talked with Johnny this morning. He says he’s going stop helping me out money-wise unless I move up there with him.”
“He’s not giving you a choice about it?”
“Not much of one, I guess.”
Johnny was Mike’s older brother, a retired cop in Chicago. He had a lean, muscled frame and went around in black T-shirts and black jeans. He looked like a no-bullshit yoga instructor. I knew from Mike he never took to my mother, and not because she was white, but because she was poor and had burned through three previous marriages and had gotten so drunk after the wedding she threw up at the dinner table in front of Mike’s family. Admittedly, that had not been her finest moment. I was sitting next to her, an eighteen year old who couldn’t wait to go off to college in New Orleans. When she started getting sick, I thought to myself, Even her wedding day she manages to fuck up. Years later, though, she’d tell me she drank like that because she was happy, and it’d been so long since she’d been in that state she’d had a hard time dealing with it.
I looked over at Mike. “You want to do that? Move up to Chicago? I hear you need to be a fucking polar bear to make the winters up there.”
“It’ll be okay. If I can handle Memphis heat, I can handle Chicago cold.”
“What happens if you say no?”
Mike laughed. “Jesus, boy. Say no for what? I can’t hardly walk, can’t drive. Most my friends are dead. Your mom’s dead. What’s there to hang on to here?”
“Outside of Johnny, you don’t know a soul in Chicago.”
“Outside of you, I barely know anyone here. So what’s the difference?”
I pulled the SUV up into his driveway, took the wheelchair from the back and brought it around to the passenger door. The rain had stopped but the air remained chilled from it, the true first sign of autumn that year.
Back when Mike broke his hip I visited the hospital most evenings, bringing him Milky Way bars, sneaking in cans of Miller Lite. I had started seeing the history teacher at the school. After leaving the hospital I’d drive to her apartment and we’d have sex and drink shots of Jim Beam and then go at it again. It’d been forever since I’d felt such carnal hunger. I had shirts in her closet, shaving cream in her medicine cabinet.
One night I visited Mike during a storm: thunder growled outside every few minutes, as if the night air had turned solid and mountainous, and kept tumbling into itself. “It’s good, you finally seeing somebody seriously,” Mike said. In the hospital bed he looked small, shrunken. He was not a big man but in that bed he looked even less so.
“I don’t know how serious it is,” I said. “It’s nice, though. After Isabel, I didn’t know if I wanted to ever date again.”
“You aren’t over her, are you? Isabel.”
I nodded no. “I still feel like she’s home. And I feel like I’ve been cast out of that home. It’s a fucked up way to regard somebody, but I can’t seem to shake it.” I glanced at the door. Opened the can of Miller Lite as silently as I could. Handed it to Mike, who drank it solemnly, and handed it back.
I hid the can in my coat pocket. I asked, “You sure the alcohol won’t fuck with your medication?”
“I’m seventy-three years old. I think I can handle a few sips of beer, no matter what kind of shit they have me on.”
Later that same night, I held Ashley in my arms. She was on top of me, her hand stroking my scalp. Her fingers touching where the stitches had been. We were half-asleep. I stared up at the lamp-lit ceiling, remembering the first time I met Mike. Mom had taken us to a pool party over at her sister’s house in Bartlett. A dozen of kids with limbs flashing in the sunlight. Heat so thick the grass stung your bare feet. I was sixteen, and the oldest kid there by a few years.
When the sun had started to set, lighting bugs sparkled in the blue air under the trees. I’d dried my back off with a Scooby-Doo towel and trotted over to a dogwood and scaled it, hoisting myself all the way into its crown. From that height I could look around into the surrounding yards and over the roof of my aunt’s place to the street beyond. As a young boy, I would feel like royalty up there, taking in the domain of my kingdom, and I did that night too, though at sixteen the magic of nestling in that swaying crown was thinning. Some minutes passed before I noticed them. My mother and a man I’d never seen before perched on the trunk of a car, at the edge of where the streetlight glow faded into darkness. In that distance all they said was silent, but I could see Mom touch his arm, laugh. Mike was in a Hawaiian shirt and tan pants. Mom had on this gauzy orange dress. They would live together for sixteen years. They would take trips to the Gulf Coast every July. And then Mom would die. And Mike would continue on with his life, working at the post office on National Street, singing at parties on the weekends, tending the tomato and eggplant garden he and mom started in the backyard. A picture of her in every room of his house.
Ashley asked, “You asleep?”
I didn’t answer, pretending to be.
Mike and Johnny talked and planned and it was decided one of Johnny’s sons would fly down to Memphis in late October and I would pick him up and we’d get a U-Haul and the two of us would load Mike’s stuff in it and the next morning they’d set out, Mike’s nephew and Mike, across the Mississippi River, towards Chicago.
On the Sundays leading up to his departure, I would come over with groceries. Cook pork chops or fry up some tilapia for fish tacos. Occasionally, Ashley came with me. Talked to Mike on the back porch, the two of them drinking beer in the shade of the house. I would hear their voices through the window screens. Ashley had been in punk bands in her teens and early twenties. Mike had been with a group called the Starlights back in the early seventies. He’d even recorded a handful of singles with Stax Records, though they never sold much. He and Ashley talked about touring in cramped vans and favorite instruments and performing for three or four drunks nodding off at the bar and leaving cities at four in the morning, a moon shining through the van windows.
Sunday nights, I spoke with my son Daryl in New Orleans. It became a habit, a weekly thing, a half hour around seven I looked forward to. We’d talk about school, and his karate class, and the Harry Potter books he was reading. He would ask me why I wasn’t in New Orleans, living in the same house as him and his mom, and I’d try to explain it. Two people can love each other, I’d say, and even love each other fiercely, and yet not be able to find ways to live with one another. Daryl would sometimes respond how that didn’t make sense. And I’d tell him he was right, it didn’t, but that didn’t mean it was any less true.
The party was on Winchester Road, not far from Graceland. It was for a woman named Loretta. She’d been involved in Memphis politics back in the seventies, part of the push let more black voices be heard in the school system, and for the past decades she’d help run charities in the area. The house had a large yard and about a dozen kids were playing on it, many of them in birthday hats. I took the chair out, helped Mike settle into the seat. Then we went up the curved driveway, Mike pushing his wheels and me carrying his keyboard.
Loretta and some family members stepped off from the porch to greet us. Mike had told me she was turning eighty, but she looked twenty years younger, with her firm jaw line and wide alert eyes. “I’m so happy to have you here, Mister Michael Collins,” she said, grasping his hand.
“Call me Mike,” he said, bowing gallantly in his chair. “Only the bill collectors call me Michael Collins.”
“You played at my sister’s birthday last year. You remember that?”
“I sure do. You’re two of the prettiest sisters I’ve ever met.” He laughed, giving her hand a squeeze. “I have a bunch of brothers, and my mama used to speculate on which one of us was ugliest. With you and your sister, though, I bet it was just the other way, wasn’t it? Trying to figure out who’s prettiest.”
Loretta laughed, patting him on the forearm. Mike stood, removing the cane attached to the back of his chair, and made his painful way up the front steps.
During the party, I took a chair by the window that looked out into the backyard, where kids played on a slide and swing set. Different family members drifted by, offering me beer and red beans and rice and a slice of strawberry cake. Mike went through his Same Cooke songs first, and then some by Ray Charles. Mike sang even better than usual, his voice seeming to touch something graveled and foundational. Near the end of the party, Loretta called the adults around and said a few words about Mike, mentioning how she had first heard him twenty years ago at a friend’s wedding, and when she thought back on that wedding Mike’s voice was often what came back to her first. Mike rubbed his knee, and with his other hand made a dismissive but friendly gesture. “I like to sing,” he said. “I guess God just blessed me with a voice that doesn’t make it too painful for others to hear me when I do so.”
The sun was glaring on the horizon as I drove Mike home. It filled the SUV with its harsh orange radiance, as if we were in the heart of a furnace. Mike was quiet, humming and tapping his fingers on the head of his cane. As we turned on Summer Avenue, he said, “Pull over, Gary. Pull over quick. I’m going to get sick.”
I drove up into an Exxon station, parked by the car wash. Mike opened the door and threw up. He stepped out of the car and one of his legs went limp and he crashed down on his knees. I ran around the SUV and helped him up. Mike said, “Drank too much. Ate too much.”
“You looked like you were having a good time.”
“I’m paying for it now, I reckon.” He laughed grimly. “That’s the shit you need to deal with when you get to be old, like me. You have a good time, you’re going to be paying for it somehow.”
I helped him back into the car. For the rest of the trip he kept his eyes closed, the passenger seat reclined all the way back. At the party he only had a slice of cake and a two cans of Miller Lite. Certainly not enough to get him sick. But I didn’t bring it up or ask him questions. He was an old man about to leave his home and the only city he’d ever lived in and I suspected that upset him more than he’d let on.
Once we were back at his house I sat down in front of him in the den. The house was quiet and dark. I said, “I’ve been thinking about it. I don’t think you should go to Chicago. I think you should stay here. This is your house. You should stay in it.”
“It won’t be my house long if I can’t make my bills.”
“I can help you with that.”
“No you can’t.”
“And why not?”
“Because I won’t let you.”
“But your brother can?”
“Yeah, he can. My brother helping me out, that’s different.”
“A stepson, that’s not allowed?”
“Gary, I love you, man, but we only lived under the same roof for about a month twenty years ago. You were full grown when your mama and me got hitched.” He looked off into the living room, glanced back at me. “I don’t say that to hurt you. We’re friends, Gary. Good friends. But you know as well as me we’ve never been family in any real tight sense. Not really. We’re two grown men with each other. That’s all.”
I laced my fingers together. Leaned back into the sofa. Swallowed hard. “All right. I hear you.”
“If you were five or even ten when your mama and me got together, it’d be different, but that wasn’t how it was.”
A hot, itchy anger coursed through me, but it quickly dispersed. It had never been as apparent before: my mom had her own life with Mike, and little of that life had involved me. I was the son living further south, showing up at Christmas to watch football games with Mike, make drinks in the kitchen with Mom. Arriving again in early May for a few weeks before driving back down to Louisiana to work on one of the fishing boats for the summer.
I stood, took some steps toward the kitchen. “I’ll make us some supper,” I said.
“You don’t have to bother. I’m not feeling that hungry tonight.”
I turned in the doorway, flipped on the corner lamp in the dimming room. “It’s no bother. Whatever you can’t eat, save for tomorrow.”
I imagine his life in Chicago. I see him being wheeled by one of his nephews to the lake and I envision him getting out of his chair and taking his cane and making his slow way across the sand and stopping at the edge of the waves and looking out into the haze where air and water commingle into one. I imagine him going to the Thai place on the corner. I see him chatting with the waitress, an Asian woman in her sixties, flirting with her and asking her what dish he should be ordering today. It’s been a few years since his move. After a while, we fell into the habit of talking about one weekend a month. Some nights I call Mike not long after speaking with Daryl.
As for my time with Ashley, that came to an end. She could tell a good part of me was still married to Isabel, no matter what the divorce papers said. We broke up around the time Mike left Memphis. The day we broke up, I drove over to Mike’s bungalow and let myself in. I had a spare key.
It was cleaned out, of course: all bare walls and bare floorboards. A space of almost heartwrenching austerity. I walked around, drinking a Corona and thinking how it’d be my last time in that place. It was near six and the sun had slanted down and the back of the house facing west was ablaze with the light. I touched the walls. I opened a window and sniffed at the air outside, all chimneysmoke and frosty leaves. An empty house is an awful thing. The sunlight in its rooms is cold and timeless. And there are no curtains to close against that glare.