I was in a Memphis parking lot. It was early morning. Before sunrise. Mother’s Day. A dark skinned man with a powdery white beard hobbled towards me.
“You gotta smoke?”
His head bobbed like an egg in boiling water as he scratched at his cheeks. “You want one.”
A woman with the shortened shuffle of a wind up robot approached from the far side of the parking lot.
The man yelled in her direction, “Hey, Mary. What you fry’n up for Motha’s day?”
“Same thang I’m always fry’n up,” she shouted back through a cough.
I walked to the pay phone and slid in quarters. She answered.
It had been a month since she left me in Indiana with no money, no car, no idea what to do with myself. I had slept behind truck stops in Arkansas, in the woods of Missouri, in Waffle House booths across Tennessee. All in an effort to arrive where her Mom had told me she would be… Memphis, on Mother’s Day.
Her mother was not biologically her mother, but a friend of her sisters who had adopted her when she was twelve. Her birth mother had passed when she was young, and was buried in Memphis.
And that was where I was.
I got on a bus in the morning’s version of dusk and headed up Poplar. She had said to get off two stops past the second McDonald’s. The first one came quick, but the second was far enough away to make me second guess whether I’d missed something.
Finally the second pair of golden arches which were meant as my landmark appeared. I wondered if the somewhat epic subtext of the sign had anything to do with the appeal of the restaurant. I wondered if the sacred was aided in its march towards the profane by the daily vision of golden arches rendered as plastic fries. It occurred to me that McDonald’s was something like the costume jewelry of food, faux-regally filling the void of the delicious. Also, I wanted a Big Mac. It’s near impossible to be in the vicinity of the chemically created wafting aroma of Big Mac without triggering involuntary salivation. And, as they seem to line city streets like mile markers, we must salivate way more than we realize.
I got off two stops later, crossed the street and entered through the open wrought iron gates of the cemetery. Wendy had said she’d be in the Southwest corner. “By the big black angel,” she’d said.
And that was where she was.
She was smoking as I approached. Her eyes were watery, which made her smile seem a little inappropriate. I felt like I was being hugged to death by the thick morning air. I put a hand on her face, which felt wet and sticky, like a kid’s cheek covered in the invisible residue of mashed carrots. She threw her cigarette down, but the cool air still facilitated tangible exhalations.
Her laugh made the moment shiver slightly into the psychotic, but she returned things to order with a few solid words, “I’m glad you found me.”
I nodded and moved close to her.
She took off a glove and put a frigid hand under my sweater onto my bare belly. I took off a mitten and ran my fingers through her greasy hair.
In the lingering psychosis of her laugh we sought each other, first cautious, then manic. Soft touches disintegrated into grasping at flesh, distrusting the solid and aiming to touch whatever lay beneath it. The wool of sweaters was thrust upward, denim and the rough white cotton of long johns tugged down as anatomy found unlikely paths towards communion.
I swear I heard her mother’s voice, though I couldn’t tell you what it said. It was like a scream in the tenor of the careless wanderings that led us to this moment. It wasn’t a condemnation, but not exactly a celebration either. A howling ode to the bacchanalian undercurrents and a warning all at once.
She put a finger against my throat. I wondered for a moment if she was trying to choke me before realizing that she was checking my pulse.
I looked her in the eyes and she smiled lucidly.
I put my fingers against the beat of her pulse, too.
We both lay laughing under the wings of the big black angel.
“Now what?” I asked her.
“Now we get Miles,” she answered.
Miles was the dog she had grown up with in foster care. She had spoken of him often.
I hid behind the McDonald’s as she hopped a fence. I sat, back against a dumpster, still wishing I had a Big Mac. If there were any real sacred spaces left they would smell like McDonald’s. I imagined a priest swinging a burger box attached to the end of a long chain as he stepped slowly through the isles of a Walmart, chanting something about baby back ribs in a muffled hum.
After fifteen minutes, she appeared, holding what seemed to be the end of her belt attached to the collar of an overweight Beagle I could only assume to be Miles. We ran, thumbs extended along the side of the road, but to little avail.
Miles was breathing hard before we made it a mile. Ironic.
Finally, a mini-van pulled over. A woman, a large woman, dressed in what seemed to be a floral patterned table cloth, and seemingly missing only the rolls in her hair and the threateningly brandished rolling pin, leapt, surprisingly athletically, from the sliding side door and ran towards us shouting loudly, “That dawg has diabetas!!!”
I ascertained that this was not someone offering a ride.
“That dawg’ll die if he don’t take’m his meds.”
Wendy let go of the belt that was serving as a leash, hiked her pants up and continued to run down the highway.
I looked at the large angry woman, who was now grabbing Wendy’s belt and securing Mile’s safe return, and then at the girl running fast away from me down the side of a Memphis highway, and decided the best thing I could do would be to scream at a cloud.