Memphis was the worst.
It was a bachannal, a festival of evil — over 50 years later I can’t hear the word “Memphis” and not see the duplex on the corner, about a mile & a half from Graceland, empty lot filled with dandelions across the street, the blacktopped street in front.
We’re standing in our Wisconsin driveway by our wonderful 1950’s car Gertrude. The sun is shining brightly down on us, not a cloud in my memory in that sky. “Get in,” our father says.
“Where are we going?”
“To Memphis, Tennessee!” our father exclaims with a broad smile. “We’re moving!”
We’d been living with our mother’s sister in recent months, only five, six, seven? short blocks away. This is the first time I can remember being back to our house for several months.
“What are we going to do there?” I ask.
“Live!” our father laughs. “I’m going to go into business with [a friend], I’ve always wanted to do that but when your mother was alive, she wouldn’t let me, said we had kids to feed, it wasn’t practical — now I can do it!” He was all wide smiles.
I can still see my facial expression clearly, as if outside myself? Slightly stunned-looking, I was.
“Is our stuff in the trunk already?” I ask.
My father: “What stuff?”
“Um, the kids’ toys and, our clothes and all?”
“We don’t have room for toys, I threw them all out,” says our father. “Come on,” he nods toward Gertrude; “Get in now.” He is merry. Gleeful?
We climbed into Gertrude, Pete, the oldest, and me, Sally, Sharon, five-year-old Phil, the youngest. I can’t see the others’ faces in my memory, just my own, all worry & concern. What will Phillip play with? What will the girls play with?! He threw our dolls out?!
We stop mid-day at a a nice family-type restaurant and we eat well and our father is still cheery. It’s starting to feel like a fun adventure.
Dark comes and we are driving along a narrow rural road that winds in undulation amidst fields filled with trees here, corn there, and tall weeds. My father stops the car and instructs Sally & Sharon to get out. I am shocked. I reach to block their exit.
“What?!” I challenge our father.
He says something like Relax, or, Don’t worry!, to me. “We’re going to stop for the night at a motel ahead but it’s too expensive to pay for all of you. The girls can walk to it from here and go straight to our room — that way I won’t be charged for them.”
“How will they know where to go?!” I ask.
“I’ll be watching for them.” He rolls his eyes at my silliness. I’m a “worrywort.”
“What if someone grabs them along the way?! What if they get lost?!” I am beside myself. “The girls” are only eight & 10. (At 12, I am at least 10, 15 years older than them.)
He turns to Sharon & Sally, exasperrated. “Get out of the car and just walk straight down this road — you will see a motel eventually. There are no other houses, businesses, buildings: nothing. Just walk straight. I’ll have my eye out for you.”
Our father is crazy, I now know.
The girls are so much more compliant than me. “Minding” him, they get out of the car. They are standing by the side of the road as we drive off. They start to walk.
I look back at them as long as I can see them before the winding road removes them from my sight. Their long cotton nightgowns and pale skin make them look like ghost figures in the night.