In Memphis I was, on purpose, the last one off the plane. I lugged my carry-on at my side and then flung it over my shoulder as I entered the damp, hot daylight. The wrenching familiarity of everything I saw had me thinking: fifteen years to get somewhere, and in three and a half hours I was fifteen years behind.
My mother, Aunt Frances, my sister Ann, and my great-aunt Mary met me at the arrival gate. I hugged each of them perfunctorily. My Aunt Frances, as usual, seemed confused and was not quite certain where I'd been for ten days. I was not smiling and I knew it and I didn't want to.
My sister asked, "Did you see the Empire State Buildin'?"
"No," I answred. "Never got there. I saw it from the street."
Great Aunt Mary shrieked, "Did you buy anything at Saks Fifth Avenue? They always have a sale".
"No," I said, "I never made it to Saks."
As we drove down Airways Boulevard we passed a newly constructed Holiday Inn. Great, I thought: every building and every street in this town is going to remind me of Martha. I gazed out the window. The sameness. The boredom. The torpor. The bleaching sun. The enervating, choking humidity. The empty sidewalks. The empty stores. The churches, churches, churches, and the revival camps. Signs directing traffic to Elvis Presley's house.
"Did you see the Statue of Liberty?" my sister wanted to know.
"Yes," I said.
"Well, what was it like?"
"It's a big, tall statue sitting in the middle of New York Harbor on a tiny island."
My mother said, "Well, didn't you have a good time?"
"Yeah," I said, weakly feigning enthusiasm.
Mom said, driving at twenty-five miles per hour in a forty-five-mile zone with both hands clutching the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles were white, "Well, it don't sound like it. I guess you did, look at him. You can tell he did, 'cause he won't say so. I guess that means you had a good time. Well, let's see, what happened while you were gone? I had a corn removed, the thing was killin' me so bad, I went to Doctor Stabnik's and told him 'cut it off before it drives me crazy.' And it was hot down here, I mean really really hot! And your daddy's been working at the store, of course, so nothin' new there. And your aunt Margaret's gonna have another baby. And, let's see, what else happened?"
Aunt Frances shrieked from the back seat, "You were in New York, Speedy? Is that where you went?"
I sighed, "Yes, Aunt Frances."
My Great Aunt Mary shrieked from the other side of the back seat, "Speedy, I hear they have a lotta niggers in New York. Is that true? Did you see a lotta niggers up there?"
I thought: god damn, I've got to get out of here. At least I would finish the day with a call to Martha to let her know I arrived home safely. For two days no one noticed that I wore new glasses.
I started my sophomore year at Christian Brothers High School. And I kept the paper route and the Saturday delivery job. Those would be, I vowed, my future tickets back to New York. I started a diary. After two weeks I had nothing to remember, so I threw it away. Instead, I typed fifteen- and twenty-page letters to Martha and mailed both within a week. I spent a week searching for a birthday card for her, and on the inside of the card I wrote "I Love You." But then I thought better of it, and tried to erase the "I" to tame it. I couldn't erase the ballpoint letter without damaging the card, so I made a special trip to buy another card like it and wrote instead, "Love you. Steven."
She answered both letters with one. As usual, she handwrote only two or three pages. I had grown to expect as much, especially in light of her workload. Her letter ended with, "P.S.: Ronnie sends her love. She wants you to come back. And Marilyn thought you were cute. And, honest, we all miss you. Especially Ronnie. Hon, did you make an impression on her! (wink)."
Her letters had never been markedly intimate. I suppose she thought (and I agreed) that my parents might read them. I saved all of Martha's letters in a shoe box, along with a few incidental papers and other scraps to throw my parents off. And I thought little of the relative brevity of her writing; had she typed them, I supposed, they might have been longer.
Between September and Christmas I wrote several long, plaintive letters asking Martha to suggest some way to get me to New York, or at least out of Memphis and into the northeast. She answered the letters with one, again, asking me to be patient and make my grades at Christian Brothers so that I could get a scholarship to an Eastern school as she had done. But graduation from high school seemed eons away. I knew her suggestion was sensible and was, in the long run, probably my best option. Each day I grew more temperamental, pouring out my frustrations into longer and longer letters. I sent a shorter letter to Ronnie, whose last name I couldn't recall, and enclosed it with a letter to Martha for delivery. I received Christmas cards from both of them.
On New Year's Day, Martha called me long distance.
"Steven," she said, "you sound so miserable. Please try to cheer up. You're in a great high school, and you can win scholarships through them. It's really a feather in your cap, and it's a very prestigious name."
I breathed into the telephone, "Martha. Martha, I hate this. I hate all of it."
"Remember what I told you about feeling sorry for yourself. Remember what I told you about being yourself. You'd be so much happier if you were in the theater and doing other things at school."
"But if I don't work, I can get back to New York."
"Steven, you're crazy. It would take you at least six more months to save that much money again."
"Okay, then six months from now is June. So I could come up this summer."
"Well, if you want to, but...Hon, that won't get you up here perma- nently, though, will it? That only gets you here for a few days. If you won a scholarship up here, and with your theater work adding to your academic record, why...if you did it that way, you'd be here forever. Not just a few days. Doesn't that make sense?"
I didn't answer.
"Doesn't that make sense?"
"Yes," I said, "it does. You always make sense. I never seem to make any sense."
"Oh, Steven. There you go again. Good lord, a few months home and you're right back where you started. Well, hon...I guess you better save and come up here before they make you a total wreck down there, and... maybe we can figure out something else in the meantime."
"Next summer then?"
"Just keep working, and we'll set up something later. Summer's a long way off, kiddo."
I told her I had received a Christmas card from Ronnie.
"Really? She told me she would send you one. She has a boyfriend, you know. A steady. She met him Thanksgiving. I guess she must have finally taken our advice, because he's a far cry from the idiots she used to hang around with. And how about you, Steven?"
I stuttered and paused and told her, "Oh, I get around. A little."
"Steee-ven?" she said skeptically. "A little?"
"Well, I'm -- y'know, I'm busy doing a, uh, a play at school in a few weeks."
"I thought you were still working on your paper route?"
"Well, just for a few weeks, I'm doing both, but...I'll be off the paper route soon. It's just until they find someone else to take the job."
"Oh, hon, that's good. I'm glad you're back into it. I'm so glad for you. Hasn't it made you feel a lot happier?"
"Yeah. Of course it has."
I finished the conversation with such bothersome pangs of guilt that I wondered if I could ever speak comfortably with her again. I began keeping copies of the letters I sent to her so that I could track any white lies I wrote. I didn't say that I was working madly, exactly the way I'd worked before. I didn't say that I was on the lookout for better-paying jobs that would get me to New York earlier.
I tamed the complaining tone of my letters and mailed them less frequently. The next letter arrived in mid-February. Another arrived in April. Then, a birthday card.
I had a few disastrous flirtations. The Brothers held a sophomore class prom. Those who couldn't find a date could get one through Brother Lawrence's contacts with the Catholic girls' schools in town. At first, my sister was going to fix me up with a blind date. After meeting several of her girlfriends I decided I'd be better off with pot luck through Brother Lawrence. How bad could it be, I told myself; after all, my date with Marilyn in New York had not been such a trying experience.
But trying it was. Being driven to and from the dance by my mother helped little. The girl had been in plays at Saint Agnes Academmy for Girls -- apparently, this was her sole qualification for being picked by Brother Lawrence. Other than her drama interests, we had nothing in common. She was, I discovered later, a local glamour girl from a relatively wealthy family whose major social interests were football players and other class heroes. I spent the evening introducing her to my class-mates, and she spent the evening traipsing about the dance hall floor with them.
It actually made little difference to me. Beyond a basic sexual titillation, I had no interest in her or any other girls. My sole interest was to save money and, hopefully, leave home. And, definitely, make it to New York. At the Liberty Cash Grocery Number 23, Charlie himself couldn't fire my interest in his numerous female contacts.
On my sixteenth birthday I received a driver's permit. My stepdad refused to allow me to drive the family car, but to me the permit meant I was one step closer to independence. I began planning the next step, which would be to buy my own used car. Of course, that wouldn't be legally possible until I was eighteen. But for severaI nights for weeks I stayed up late, calculating the possibilities: the time required to save a little more for trips to New York; saving for a future car of my own; perhaps getting someone else to let me use their car for a larger, more lucrative paper route; or using someone else's car to get me to a better job after school.
For the time being, the driver's permit allowed me to drive my Aunt Frances' or my Daddy Joe's car. Durng my weekend stays with them I began taking them to work and picking them up at night now and then, or making short drives to cafe supply houses. When Aunt Frances gave me three or four dollars for gas, I'd secretly pocket some of the money. The first few times I did this I remember saying to myself, "There ya go, Steven. on your way to a life of crime."
That, and lying to Martha about my jobs and my long-range plans, often kept me up at night.
By the end of July, I had received no letter for nearly four months. I was so busy working that summer -- the paper route in the mornings and the delivery bikes all day during the week -- that I had little time or energy for the long letters I'd written earlier.
On the last Sunday in July, 1958, I was spending the day at the Tremont Cafe when I received a telephone call just after dinner. I stood behind the service counter talking to one of Uncle johnny's old railroad buddies when Mama Rose answered the telephone.
"Butch, honey?" she called from the front corner of the store, near the cash register. "You got a phone call, Butch."
"Who is it?" I asked.
"I dunno, Butch, but it's for you."
This could only be Martha, I thought, and I rushed to the phone.
"Steven? It's Martha."
"Oh, Martha! Hello. I thought you were dead!"
"Well, not yet, hon."
"Your Southern accent has totally disappeared."
"Has it? Do I sound like one of those enraged New Yorkers?"
"No, no, you sound just fine."
"What's all that noise in the background?"
"That's the juke box in this place. Is it awful, or what? Here, hold on, I'm moving the telephone into the corner behind the cigar counter, maybe that'll help. There. Is that better?"
"Yes, a little. It's a little better. Steven, I had to call all over town to find you. Doesn't anybody know where you hang out? I called your mother, and she had me call your Aunt Frances, and nobody answered, and then...well, anyway, I finally got through to you."
"Yeah, well, they don't pay very much attention to me, whether I tell them where I am or not."
"Yes, I found that out. Well...how's school? How'd your play turn out? Have you started anything for the summer?"
"Oh, it was, uh, really great. You know, no big deal, these things come and go. I'll be in something else soon."
"You never wrote me about it."
"No, I...I've been really busy with all that, y'know."
"Please write me, Steven, and let me know how you're doing. You have me so worried sometime. I'm sorry I never come home, I'd be able to keep track if I did, but...you know, I don't feel any better about Memphis than you do."
"I understand that. It's no problem, Martha, really, uh...Listen, I'll write and let you know everything. I'll write this week."
"Oh, good, I know you'll have lots of juicy news about your plays and things you're working on, and let me know if you need any information on colleges up here. I can get all you need."
"Yeah. Yeah, I'll do that."
"Steven...Listen, I...I had to reach you tonight, this has been on my mind for a while now, and...Steven...hon, are you there? Are you still there?"
"Yes, I'm here. Still here."
"Oh, I heard weird noises."
"I was moving the telephone set, Martha, it's so noisy in here."
"Oh, that's what it was. Well...Steven, I...Well, you remember I told you, none of us knew what might be happening, and my own jobs were so irregular and everything, and...Well, I might be moving to Connecticut. To Riverside, Connecticut. It's about an hour north of New York on the commuter train."
"Oh, I see. But you can still get to New York?"
"Oh, yes, that's no problem. And I still work in Manhattan for the time being, but...Steven, I..."
"Yeah? I'm still here."
"I know you are...Steven...I..." Over the line, I heard her swallow hard. "Promise me, now, you won't get upset or anything. I'm not really sure how you feel about this, I'm not...I..." Again, she swallowed hard. "Steven, I've met someone."
The juke box blared. The restaurant was crowded at the tail end of the dinner hour. The music and the customers and the clanking pots receded into nowhere. All I could hear was the telephone in my ear.
"I met him a long time ago, actually, but nothing ever really happened, you know, and then...several months ago...Steven, promise me that you won't...Oh, darn"
"I promise. Why do you want me to promise something? You've met people before."
"Steven...I want to move in with him. For a few months. And try... I want...Oh, Steven, I...I think I'm...I'm pretty sure we're going to get married. Before the end of the summer."
"...Oh...I see, well, that's..."
"That's why I had to reach you. I didn't want you to get this in the mail or anything like that, and I'm packing now. Can you believe this, all the packing I've done, and I'm packing again! But I'm...moving in a few days to stay with him in Connecticut, and I thought if you called I wouldn't have the phone here anymore in Manhattan, and I...Well, I just decided this weekend to say yes. And I couldn't do it without telling you, Steven...Steven? Hon?"
"Yeah, I'm here, it's okay."
"Steven...Do you understand what I mean? I'm trying to say...Hon, it was...Well, I didn't expect it. I just didn't expect it."
"Well, sure, you...uh...you really like this guy. Right?"
"Yes, I do, Steven. I do. Not like with you, in many ways, but... well, it's just very different. I don't know how to explain it, and I won't even try, but...Steven...sweetheart, I hope this doesn't...You know how much I care about you. I've been -- Oh, hon, I've been so worried! I sat up late with Ronnie, and then sat up all night by myself. I didn't know what to do. I tried to write, but...That wouldn't do, and I knew I had to call you. And now I...I still don't know what to do."
"Oh, but I'm...glad you found somebody. Really."
"...You're not just saying that? Steven, I'll make him buy me a ticket down there and I'll beat your little behind if you're just saying that. You know how I feel about you."
"No, really. Really, I'm happy, and I...Well, I hope it works. I hope it's better than the treatment Ronnie ended up with."
"Oh, Ronnie, well...Ronnie's okay, I guess, I haven't heard anything tragic lately, but...Hon, this isn't about Ronnie. This is about you. I sat by this phone for three hours before I could call you, and I spent another hour trying to figure out where you were. I had to find you and tell you, and...I will write. I'm moving this week, but as soon as I'm settled in Riverside, I'll write you a nice long letter, and give you my new address and everything."
"Well, when I come to New York I'll be within train distance of you, won't I?"
"When you come to New York?"
"Well, I...I'll be visiting up there, sooner or later. Hopefully sooner, and...well...When would you and I be able to...you know, to get together again?"
There was a long pause on the line. I knew she was still there. The low, unchanging hum from her end of the line told me I was still connected. A couple of seconds passed. Only a couple of seconds. At the time, it seemed like several minutes.
She said, gently, "Never, Steven."
I spoke quickly. "...Oh, well, *sure*, I mean...You know what I mean, I mean...if I ever came up there, or...You know, I could visit, and take the train up and, you know..."
"Steven...I'm going to marry him."
"Of course, of coure you are, I didn't...I didn't mean the question to sound the way it did, I meant...you know, if I'm ever in New York, we could meet for lunch or something, or...You know what I mean."
"If we marry, it'll be by the end of the summer. And we'll probably come to Memphis. He can sure afford it, so I'd drop by and see your folks. And I'd see you, of course. I'd love to see you again, sweetheart. Maybe you'll be doing a play, and I can see you. I'd love to see you doing something you like, I wouldn't miss that for the world."
"Well, I'll let you know if I'm gonna be...doing anything."
"Hon, are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm fine."
"Oh, honey, I...Steven, if you want to say anything...Go ahead."
"...Don't be ridiculous."
"You deserve somebody. You need a home. You can't...you can't shower in the kitchen forever. Anyway...why should things just stay the way they are? You know? I know how you feel about me."
"Do you? Do you, sweetheart? Do you really?"
"Sure I do. You know that. And I have a...I have a girlfriend I've seen a little of, you know. I mean..."
"Steven...you know I love you, hon. You know that, don't you? Please, don't...Please, don't lie to me Steven."
"Well, we...we grew up together, and...y'know...but things change. Things happen."
"Hon, my feelings about you have never changed. I told you how I felt. I do love you, Steven. And I'm glad you're doing better down there. And when we come to Memphis, you'll be around, right? In late August or early September? That's when we plan to come down. I'd love to see you, hon. Is that okay? Could I see you then? You won't end up in the movies and go to Hollywood by then, will you?"
"I seriously doubt it."
"Haha, oh, hon. Oh, I do love you. I was so afraid that...Listen, I'll write to you next week, and you'll get a letter soon. Okay? A long one, this time."
"I have to go and call my mom, for what it's worth, and tell her I'm moving, and...Hon, you're still my favorite. You're my one and only, Steven, in so many ways. You know that, don't you?"
"Of course I do. And you're...You're my one and -- "
"Hon? What's wrong? Steven?"
"...It's okay, I, uh......almost dropped the phone."
"Listen, this is your Aunt Frances' business phone, and I know how she is, and we don't want her to throw a fit. But I'll write. And I'll give you my new phone number."
"...Yeah...Right. That's good."
"Steven, please don't...Well...Goodbye, hon."
"Write to me!"
"Of course I will. Goodbye, Martha."
"Okay, I...Goodbye, hon. You'll hear from me, don't worry...and I ..There's never enough time, is there?...well...Goodbye, Steven."
A click. Two clicks. A dial tone.
I listened to the dial tone for about half a minute. What was left of her was out there in that dial tone, somewhere. I hung up the phone and placed it near the cash register where it belonged. The juke box hammered, "You Ain't Nothin' But A Hounddog". People ate and talked and read their newspapers. I put my hands in my pockets and walked behind the counter and into the kitchen. Mama Rose asked me, "Who was that on the phone, Butch?"
"Nobody," I said.
I walked through the back room where a waitress was taking her coffee break. I headed for the back door.
"Where you off to, sport?" she asked.
"Takin' a walk."
"Don't get lost, hon."
I went outside into the rear parking lot. It was dark. Hot. Humid. Still. I opened the door to the ten-by-ten foot, firebrick, food storage bin that was built onto the rear of the Tremont Cafe. I shuffled among the bushels of carrots and the potato sacks and tomatos. In the dark, I sat on a crate of cabbage. I cried for a long time.
One day in late September when I came home very late from school, Mom said, "Speedy, You missed Martha Jane's call. I told her I didn't know where you were. By the way, that reminds me, she called a couple of weeks ago, and you weren't here then, either. I guess I forgot all about it. Where've you been all day? It's after supper."
I opened an upper door of the kitchen cabinets and fetched a clean glass. I said dully, "I had to stay late in the library at school."
"Oh, well...Martha Jane's gonna be here next Sunday with her new husband, you know, that guy from Connecticut that she married. We're gonna have a little barbecue out back on the patio. Your daddy's out there repairin' the barbecue stand. Anyway, you gonna be here next Sunday afternoon?"
"Yeah," I said, pouring a glass of ice water. "I guess so."
"I tell ya, that girl's stepdaddy, that Mr. Buchanan, he's a hoot, Ain't he? He won't even let her and her husband come to his house. I tell ya, some of these rich folks are nuts. I cain't figure him out, I thought he wanted his daughter married. Anyway, Martha Jane will be here, and her mother and her sister Evelyn will be here, they're gonna sneak away from Mr. Buchanan and be here Sunday. And Evelyn Graham's husband, too. She's married, too, you know. Some guy at the First National Bank."
"That's nice," I said as I emptied the unused water into the sink. "I'll be here, I guess."
"Well, it'll start at four-thirty or so, we figure it'll be nice out- side and cooled off by then..."
As she rambled, I went into my room without a word and closed the door. Many of my belongings had been packed in boxes standing against one wall. My family was preparing to move in a few weeks to an older but better neighborhood in Memphis, near Southwestern College. Many of the Lobianco family members lived in that area, with several related clans living next door to each other. Our own neighborhood had deteriorated rather early and was quickly being overrun by lower-class residents who displaced the original homeowners.
Because we were moving to a different part of town, I quit my paper route. I would have quit the paper route, anyway. It had worn me out and grown too large for servicing on my Schwinn. And I had proven myself as a hard worker to Tony Lobianco, who preferred that I spend more time at Christian Brothers and keep up my grades for college prospects.
I was about to quit my Saturdays at the grocery store. I had told my mother about it, but hadn't mentioned it to Tony. When my mother asked why I planned to quit the store, I replied morosely, "I'm tired. And I don't wanna give any more." She balked at my answer and asked what I meant, but I said, "It means I'm tired. I'm worn out. That's all."
In my room that night in September, I sat at my desk and looked around for anything that might be left of Martha. I had destroyed her letters -- burned them in the garbage can out back, along with the pictures I'd taken in New York, and then stirred the ashes and dumped more paper on them and burned it all again. The burning included poems, notes, and anything in my bedroom that would remind me of Martha. I left the typewriter at my Aunt Frances' house, and bought a smaller one. Of course, there was still the rest of Memphis to contend with; every car trip into the Memphis State area brought back another set of memories. All that was left, in the small top drawer of the desk hutch, was her last letter. It arrived about two weeks after the phone call. It had a return address in Riverside, Connecticut. It was a thick envelope. I could tell that Martha must have had to fold the flap firmly in order to seal it. I had never opened it. The seal remained intact. Now and then I would look at the envelope and wonder what was inside and wonder if I should get mixed up in it by opening the thing and reading the letter.
Often in my bed at night, as I tried to sleep, I would see in my mind the flaming, smoking letters in the big metal drum in our back yard. I remembered the night I gathered them and all the other remnants, going through my room meticulously to make certain I'd forgotten nothing. I did it without pause, without thinking. Even as I was doing it, I didn't know why. I vaguely recall Fiore saying "You can't go back, only ahead." I knew of no other way to go ahead. If I felt an emotion welling up, I thought about something else as I gathered and burned the memories. I allowed only unrelated thoughts to enter my head. I told myself that if I could ignore pain when I worked out, I could ignore pain any time.
The unopened envelope had survived by accident. When it arrived I placed it in a spot apart from the others, intending to open it later. Each time I brought out the envelope, it remained unopened.
On the last Sunday in September, 1958, I drove my Mama Rose to work at the Tremont Cafe. I drove Daddy Joe's car and then drove Daddy Joe to his liquor store on Poplar Street. He would be there all day that day taking inventory. I was supposed to pick them up at eleven o'clock Sunday night and bring them home.
Instead of staying at the Tremont all day as I usually did on weekends, I drove the car back to Mama Rose's and spent the day there. I roamed about the house, rummaging through the attic, looking for my old toys. I found many of my dad's childhood relics: books, some high school texts from Catholic High; I found some of his letters in an old trunk. I spent the day rummaging through a past I'd never known, wondering how the people in that house sounded and acted in the 1920's and 1930's when my father was growing up. Later in the day I knew I would soon have to make up my mind whether or not I would be at my parents' home on Macon Road when Martha arrived.
I walked through my Mama Rose's neighborhood. I walked on the streets where my father grew up. I had never seen these streets. I looked at the houses and the people and the stores. I wondered what he might have been thinking on that last night, when he wrote my mother and decided that taking a chance on a risky mission was better than a sure shot at living half-alive.
I decided I wouldn't go to my parents' house that day.
At four-thirty on Sunday I was in Mama Rose's house, napping in the bed where my father once slept and where I slept every other weekend as a toddler. When I awoke at five-fifteen I looked about the room and listened, searching for remnants of my dad's presence in the room. I felt I had begun to understand his decision.
At around seven o'clock the telephone rang. I wondered if it might be Mama Rose calling, or Daddy Joe. Or my mother. Or Martha. I didn't answer the phone. It stopped after seven rings.
At eight o'clock I was in Daddy Joe's back room, sitting in his leather easy chair with my feet on the footstool. I paged through his collection of National Geographics. His collection went as far back as the early 1920's. I knew looking at them might be risky; when Martha was Martha Jane, she had shown me a picture of a woman in a National Geographic from the 1920's, a picture that reminded her of herself. But that night, I never came across that picture.
At eight-forty the phone rang again. I wondered what Martha looked like at that moment. I wondered if she was the caller. I sat in the chair and read the magazine. The phone rang ten times before it stopped.
I thought it might have been someone from the Tremont calling, so I called the cafe. Mama Rose answered the phone.
"Hi, Butch! Is that you?"
"Yeah, Mama Rose. Listen, did you just call here?"
"No, I didn't call. And it wasn't Daddy Joe. He got tired of work- ing at the liquor store, so he left early and took a taxi over here to the Tremont. He was just getting ready to call you and tell you he'll be here tonight when you pick us up."
"Well," I lied quickly, "I don't feel good."
"What's the matter, sweetheart?"
"I, uh, drank some milk. I think it was going sour. I think it made me sick, so I took a nap."
"Oh, Butch, be careful. If the milk's bad, just throw it away. It ain't worth it to drink bad milk."
"I know. Can you and Daddy Joe get home tonight? I think I'm too sick to drive. I don't wanna risk it, if all I have is a permit instead of a license."
"Sure, Butch. Don't you worry, your Aunt Francis can bring us home."
"Do me a favor and see if anyone called for me over there at the cafe."
"Okay, hold on." I listened to the juke box over the telephone and the clatter of the restaurant. In a moment Mama Rose came back to the phone. "Aunt Frances says your mama called here a little while ago, looking for you."
"I see. Well...if she calls back, tell her...I'm sick and I'm asleep over here. I probably won't hear the phone."
"Okay, honey-boy. I'm sorry you're so sick. Don't worry about it, Aunt Frances will get us home around eleven-thirty."
I hung up. I grabbed another magazine and sat in Daddy Joe's chair.
At nine-fifteen the phone rang again, ten times. It rang ten times again at nine-thirty-five. It didn't ring again that night.
At a little after ten I went to bed in my father's and Uncle Frank's old room. I lay in the big bed and paged through one more magazine. I wondered what Martha was thinking. I wondered if she knew what I was doing. I wondered if she knew why I was doing it. I wondered, even, if I knew. I had read a case in a psychology book where an orphan had cut all ties with new friends at one point because the new friends were the only symbols the orphan had for the mother and father that he was bound to break away from one day. Or was my inner power now making me do things I should never, never do? Or had Martha somehow known this would happen all along? Had she indeed found that a future with me would be impractical later, and then happened to meet her ideal while trying to resolve the problem? Had she shared me with Ronnie to whet my young appetite for more adventure, or as a gift, a consolation for what she knew would happen anyway? Or had I, powerful sexpot Steven, managed to somehow keep us together longer than she thought I would? Had I missed my chance by being too cautious with Martha and not speaking my feelings completely?
At ten-thirty I put out the light on the table beside the bed. As I settled into my pillow I said aloud, "Regardless of the answers, pal, you're flying on your own."
I lay on my side. My eyes drifted to the big, curtained window beside the bed. The warm, late-September Memphis air drifted almost inaudibly through the leaves of the fig tree outside the window. I saw moonlight spilling onto the window sill and onto the bed and onto me. My eyes clung to the moonlight. My ears clung to the faint rustling of little leaves on the fig tree. My mind clung to a memory of the same sound and the same soft air a few years earlier, and a warm night and hazel eyes and a song:
Last Saturday night I got married.
Me and my wife settled down.
Now me and my wife are parted.
I'm gonna take another stroll downtown.
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight.
I'll see you in my dreams.
By December my family had moved to a bigger house in midtown Memphis. The neighborhood was packed with other members of the Lobianco family, making my stepdad feel right at home. I had no paper route. I had no delivery job. I spent weekends doing homework and rehearsing for plays and planning on how my GI Bill money from the War Orphans Act of World War II would be used to get me through college a few years hence. I was thinking about joining the Army after I got out of high school. I wanted to see more New York's, more sights, more sounds, more people. I wanted to see some of the places I'd read about in the National Geographic. I wanted to see anything but Memphis.
Now and then I would falter and start looking for remnants of Martha. For weeks I searched for the unopened envelope in our new home. I never found it. I wrote a letter to Ronnie, not knowing what I would do if she replied. The letter was returned, marked "addressee unknown."
By then the memories were starting to fade and scatter. The memories became a yearning for the missing pieces. Soon there was mostly the yearning. At night I stopped the yearning by pulling down the shades in my bedroom to darken the moonlight on the window sills.
Just after Christmas I drove my Daddy Joe's car one Saturday afternoon to the Liberty Cash Grocery Number 23 to deliver some papers to my stepdad. I parked in front of the store. It was a chilly, but not unpleasant, late December day. 1959 would arrive soon. And then the 60's and graduation and college. Getting out of the car, I looked across the street at the building where I had grown up. Where Speedy and Martha Jane had grown up. The project was beginning to wear down. The lawns needed cutting. Much of the shrubbery had died or was uprooted. The clump of thick shrubbery and saplings that once stood beside the building was replaced by an extension of the parking area. I thought about the day I had tried, in a rage, to uproot a shrub with my bare hands. Some of the trees were gone.
I delivered my stepdad's papers and said hello to some of the guys I worked with in the past.
"Hey, Speedy!" one of the guys yelled. "You comin' back to work? We needja here!"
I grinned, "Nope. I'm working on a project. Big new project."
On my way out of the store I saw an attractive girl pass in front of me on the sidewalk. I thought she might have eyed me, too, but I was moving too quickly to be certain. I pulled out my key ring and was standing at the driver's side of my car, fishing for the door key, when I saw that the girl had stopped on the corner and was looking at me.
She had long dark hair and a strangely pretty, thin face, a long neck, and soft nipples pushing from small breasts under her pink silk blouse. Long-legged and slim, she wore loose jeans and brown sandals and an open corduroy jacket. A second look at her face and her darkly lashed, brown eyes evoked a memory of someone I had met before.
"Hey," she said hesitantly, her voice soft and thick with a Southern accent, "Ain't your name Stevie? Or Speedy? Or somethin' like that?"
"It's Steven," I said. I walked toward her with a smirk. "Hi, Karen."
Her eyes lit up. "You 'membered my name!" she said. She walked toward me. "I thought you might 'a had trouble findin' me in the neighborhood, 'cause I don't hang around with Chrissie no more. And I ain't seen you around in a while. I don't remember you wearin' glasses."
I ignored her remark about the glasses. Had she changed? More grown-up. Brighter, healthier. At least, now, she smiled more easily. There was something in the sweetness of her smile that reminded me of Martha and of Martha Jane, and something dark and sad in her yes that was Ronnie.
I thought: What the hell, you have to start somewhere. You have to work with your limits. I asked, "You still as shy as you used to be?"
"Maybe." She winked, and flashed a grin. She added, looking deeply into me, "It depends."
I said, "Maybe we should do something sometime, and see what makes you more comfortable."
She shrugged. "Okay."
I pretended a bantering, casual laugh. I pretended real hard. "Don't say okay," I said, "if you don't mean okay."
Thus a long and impossible journey ended.
And a new, unfinished one began.
T H E E N D
This has been a story from my heart, and reminds me , may be just a little, of my own childhood and adolscence.I could elaborate a lot more, but so be it. Amen.