Preview of “All the Way to Memphis”
Clista Juniper was a meticulous woman, from her immaculate housekeeping to her perfectly enunciated sentences; from the way she comported herself with pitch-perfect professionalism to the way she presided over the Hinds County High library. The school was situated between the county seat of Jackson, Mississippi, and Raymond, which was known as “the other county seat,” a fact that amused her with its ironical aberration, its lack of order. It even extended to her daily wardrobe, which consisted of tailored suits in every shade of beige so that the coral lips and nails, with matching pumps, her trademark, would stand out all the more, her platinum-dyed hair double-French twisted in a tight, inwardly curling labial sheen, a la Tippi Hedren. Indeed, her colleagues—for she had no real intimates—often teased her about her early sixties look, whereupon Clista might express her practiced, breathy giggle and respond, “It is me, the look. Always has been.”
“Right down to the girdle?” a teacher might ask.
“With the clips and all?” another might chime in.
“They still make those?”
“I have always believed in stocking up.”
“What’s a girdle?” a neophyte, a young woman poorly read who took no note of puns, might ask.
So Clista, though she was senior staff at sixty-something, would leave it to another woman, a fifty-something, to explain, getting back to her shelves and her silence and her computerized Dewey Decimal System (although she maintained a card catalogue as well), shushing students with a coral pucker against her coral-nailed index finger.
The automobile she was driving on this day, her champagne-colored Cadillac, was as meticulously kept as she, although, on this particular day, she was thinking of taking up a former bad habit and filling the car’s ash tray with coral-printed filters on the butts of fags she had smoked. She was on edge, shaky, the twists of her coif slightly wispy, like the frayed nerves she so tightly held inside the emotions she rarely let loose. She had let loose this morning, though, before doing her usual ablutions and her make-up to step into the Cadillac and drive not to the high school, where she would be expected after the weekend, but north, to some indeterminate place– she knew not where.
When she saw the figure in the distance, on the side of the highway, she knew immediately what she would do. And, even though Clista was nothing like the sort to pick up a hitchhiker, she would certainly make an exception on this day, as she put her life, her profession, her town behind her, making a sure-to-be futile attempt to run away.
This was a day of making all kinds of breaks, the shattering of facades, the clattering of realities, a day to step out of character and try to locate her self, if there ever was such a thing. It made a crazy kind of ironic sense to pick up a hitcher, who, as she drew closer, looked more and more like a teenage girl, finally becoming one, sturdy but slight of frame, like a gymnast. Certainly not threatening, like the haggard and tattooed serial killer stereotype that had forever lived in her wagons-circled mind. She pulled to the shoulder of the road and watched in the rearview mirror as the girl gathered up her things and bounded toward the waiting vehicle, then, catching her own eyes in the reflecting oval of silvered glass, saw a shadow of the emotion and primal fear that had captured Clista in the pre-dawn hours this morning, when she shot and killed her husband of forty-something years.
It was only an oddity to her now that she had done such a thing; it seemed distant and sketchily surreal. Strange how rapidly those tautly-bound emotions came undone, ramping into the kind of sight-blotted rage that would allow a person to do murder, settling afterwards into a numbness of spirit and mind that allowed her to believe in the possibility of, simply, running away—to almost believe it never happened in the first place. The numbness vibrated in an ear-humming buzz, as if her entire skull were swaddled in layer upon layer of cotton sheeting or felt, but there were fuzzy sounds of car doors and heavy canvas bags thudding into the leather seats. Then a voice, a face, something like words.
“What?” Clista managed.
“It’s just that you’ve saved my life, that’s all. If I had to be in this nothing place just one more day, just one more day, I would go nut case. See, my family is an insane asylum. My dope fiend mother especially. And so I just now packed up my shit, marched my butt down that dirt lane, and sat myself on the side of the highway. And here you come right off the bat. Shit, what’s your name?”
It was a jarring question, and inside of Clista’s hesitation, her guest continued.
“I’m Savannah. But I don’t think I’ll keep that name. Doesn’t sound bluesy enough. Sa-van-nah. It’s a city in Georgia. Which is known for peaches. But what about Georgia? For a name, I mean.
Clista was still thinking about her own name.
“Do you have any chips or something?” The girl had not taken a breath. “I’m always hungry. I’m definitely set on a different speed than most other people. Are you going to put it in drive?”
Again the out-of-left-field questions caught Clista off guard. “I—yes,” she said, pulling back onto the pavement. Ever prepared for emergencies, she gestured at the glove box, where Savannah found a pack of cheese crackers.
The girl tore into the package with her teeth, orange crumbs scattering, then, “I love states for names—Bama, Carolina. Cities, not so much. Missouri is nice. What’s yours?”
“It’s Clista,” she said, thinking, and I murdered my husband this morning, because he did the unimaginable and betrayed our decades of sameness and safety and “understoods,” and “inasmuches” and such immaculate respectability as most couples never achieve. He took all that was invested in our public presentation as a couple and crumbled every iota of trust into talcum powder and the fairy dust that magically transformed me into a cold, cold killer.
“—so of course you know that,” Savannah was saying.
“What I was saying. Are you alright? I was saying how your name sounds something like a female part, but I guess you caught a lot of teasing at a certain age, so of course you know that. Junior high is hell for everybody.” She sucked in a breath. “I’m sorry if I offended you. Sometimes I go over the top. My mind goes faster than I can talk and I try to keep up and so words get blurted out before I know it. You know?”
Clista was not accustomed to such talk, talk of female parts with sexual references, cursing, and just plain chattiness of a distasteful bent, as she had no good best girlfriend, having kept the world at a polite, respectable distance. This girl, however, felt unthreatening in spite of her verbiage. “How old are you?” the driver attempted to divert.
“Twenty-six,” was the reply. “I know, I know. I look sixteen. I get it all the time. It’s because I’m so small-boned. And flat chested. I’ve thought about store-bought tits, implants, but I just don’t believe in doing that shit to your body.” She sighed with a flourish. It’s a blessing and a curse, being my size. I mean, when I tell people I’m a blues singer, they laugh. ‘Ain’t no big, bluesy voice gonna come out of that little thing.’ Plus I’m white, obviously. ‘Little bitty white chicks can’t sing the blues.’ Folks just don’t take me seriously. When you’ve lived through the low down dirty shit I’ve lived through, you can damn sure feel the hurt. Like, what do you do when it takes your crack head mother two years to get rid of a man who’s pushing his hands in your panties and you’re nine years old? Two years!”
“Oh, my!” Clista drew away from her, an instinct, and was immediately embarrassed.
“Well, it wasn’t my fault, you know.”
“Of course not. Absolutely not. I’m so sorry. I’m just not accustomed—”
“My point is, that’s just one of the crappy things I’ve experienced. And it wasn’t even the worst. But I keep it upbeat, you know? Keep it in the sunlight. Positive thoughts. Let it out in the lyrics. So do you believe I can sing?”
“I would imagine so,” Clista said, thinking instead that betrayal felt like the big, silver blade of a very sharp knife slicing cleanly through the jugular. He betrayed me and I was unleashed in an unthinkable way, into utter insanity. I was not responsible, nor do I regret. The lioness kills to protect her vulnerable offspring, after all. Is there an analogy to be had? Does it even matter?
“—and my boyfriend—he’s a tattoo artist—he did all of mine, see?” She turned her leg to reveal the serpent-like lizard inked around her calf, winding toward its own tail; turned a shoulder bearing a crucifix, Jesus and his blood upon an elaborately detailed cross, the eyes of the holy martyr cast up in surrender to the Father. “His name—my boyfriend’s—is Dakota. A state, right? It fits with my world view. He is amazingly talented. I mean, isn’t this gorgeous?” She pulled down the front of her t-shirt to reveal, just above her heart, a small but beautifully intricate insect of some kind—something like one might find in a fly fisherman’s tackle box. “I have others, but they are in hard to find places, if you know what I mean.”
Clista’s husband was a fly fisherman with a vast, three-tiered tackle box loaded with treasured lures, some even from his navy days, the days of their courtship. He took regular and frequent fishing trips to Colorado at solitary resorts, to the Rocky Mountain streams where he danced his line in the rhythmic ballet of a cast. She did not accompany him as she had no interest in his hobbies other than as fodder for those sometimes necessary social conversations:
“Paul loves his lures as much as he loves me,” she might joke, “but at least he finds me more alluring.” Not that she alluded to any sort of physical sensuality between the two of them. Clista had always found that particular expression of human instinct to be distasteful at best, more of the time disgusting. There were un-artful fumblings early in their union, a marriage that followed a courteous courtship, but they soon settled into a life of platonic rhythms, ebbing away into separate workdays, flowing back into their isolated split-level home in the evenings. And no later than ten p.m. they would be tucked into twin beds connected by a night stand bearing an antique Princess telephone, pink, with a nine millimeter loaded and at the ready in its French Provincial drawer.
“—so why don’t you just take a look,” Savannah had opened a cell phone and was scrolling through some photographs. “Here you go,” and she turned the screen to Clista.
“Oh!” It came almost as a shriek paired with another recoiling of her whole body. The wheels left the blacktop for a few seconds.
“Holy Christ—what was that?” Savannah looked at her as if she had two heads and then studied the screen of her phone, a close-up of her pubic area and the peace lily engraved above the curls. Her face fell.
“Oh. I thought you wanted to see my other tattoos. Sorry.”
“No, it’s alright. I—I’m just not accustomed to such images.”
“No shit. Well, I didn’t mean to scare you. I mean, it’s just skin, basically. I’ve never seen what the big deal is. Skin is skin. It holds in our organs. Sex is something else, but it really amounts to just rubbing. But you’re the driver so I sure as hell won’t fuck with you.
But you have to know up front that I was born without a filter.”
“You know, I tend to blurt out whatever’s in my head. I’m ADHD, so it kind of goes with the territory. I’ll try to watch my mouth, though. I mean, you could easily just dump me on the side of the road again. And there I’d be with my thumb out. Again.”
“I won’t do that.” Then, for no real reason she could fathom, she added, “I’m going all the way to Memphis.”
“For real? Holy shit, that’s awesome. How lucky is it you picked me up? And don’t worry—no more tattoo pictures,” and she laughed a trilling, lively laugh.
Paul had a tattoo, from the time he served in the navy during the Vietnam Conflict. It was of two intertwining snakes encircling a cross, the word “Bound” crowning the top of the cross like a bent halo. He said it represented his love of country, how bound up in it he was. And he believed in what he was doing in fighting the Red Menace off the shores of Southeast Asia, even if he never had to dodge any bullets.
“What?” Clista had not realized she had spoken.
“The serpents. So symbolic. I mean, my Uncle Jessie actually fought over there—lost a leg and an eye. He has a cool glass eye he always entertained us with—my cousins and me—when we were kids. He’d take it out and toss it up in the air and catch it in his mouth like popcorn.”
“I know, pretty gross. But not if you’re a little kid and not really at all if you think. I mean, look what he’s been through. He deserves to do whatever the hell he wants, huh? He doesn’t have a fake leg anymore. He used to. And he could make it do fart noises, another thing little kids love.”
“Goodness!” Paul was not allowed—had not been allowed—to fart in her presence. Clista insisted that he step into the bathroom or outside if that urge was upon him. On those occasions when it happened serendipitously, he apologized with abject humiliation to her stony disdain.
Black earth was turned in the fields bordering Highway 61. It was planting time and within months the black dirt would turn to snow, and cotton puffs would litter the roadside after picking was done. Picking. To pick off. She had killed him, shot him in the head right there in his study, where she had found him before dawn, crept up to the door, borne witness to the sounds of lecherous, staccato-rhythmed motions and gritty, profane talk. He was preoccupied enough not to notice the slight click as she eased the door open, just a crack, just enough that she could see the man facing him on the computer screen, knew immediately who he was—the man in the photographs holding stringers heavy-laden with fish—the best friend from the navy, Spencer Kraus, also married. She fetched the gun and returned to wait it out. He did not notice, even when the screen had gone dark and he had lain his head down on his arms, exhausted, as she padded across the carpet’s soft pile in one dreamlike motion, squeezed two bullets into his skull, turned and left just that quickly, with the stealth of a jungle cat.
So tell me more.” Savannah’s words, again jarring.
“What do you mean?”
“You just said you were a cat.”
“Yeah, a jungle cat. And I’m thinking, what the hell?”
“I’m sorry,” Clista stammered. “I’m just upset.” She had to watch her words, slipping out unintended and quick, like minnows darting across currents.
“Well, then tell it, sister. What did the son of a bitch do?” She pulled out a pack of American Spirit cigarettes. “Okay if I smoke?”
“Yes.” Her surrender felt like the beginning of some kind of relief.
“But only if you light one for me.”