Lou wheeled his hulking Lincoln with squishy suspension and loose steering and it listed like a ship in the turns. When he drove, which was rare, Lou compensated in his seat for the g-force displacement his haste always produced. He would lean to his left as the car’s left side rose up under him. At times it got so bad that he looked like a stunt driver in the circus. He’d always loved his car, like a man should, but he was thinking about getting something else. Maybe a foreign job. One of those sporty new Rivieras. Red light.
The radio played low. Delly thought it was Billy Joel. She’s Always a Woman. What the hell does that mean? Sometimes she a man? He wondered what it would be like to play the Coliseum. Or Raford’s Lounge downtown. To have an album. A single. He decided he hated Billy Joel. Sounds like boy scout shit, he thought.
Green light. The motor’s whiny roar perfectly indicated what Lou’s right foot was doing, or not. He floored it. Delly sat calm and watched a black part of town speed by as Lou rolled hard up Vance, cut north for a block on Lauderdale and then east again on Linden until it became Somerville and then this curved around and bled onto Crump which became Lamar and after one short minute of this, he made an easy cushy left and then they charged up Central and blew through all the greens at McLean, Barksdale and Cooper, but the light at the Parkway turned on him and Lou screamed, I’m not stopping! so he yanked the wheel to the right and threw his body to the right and the car pitched hard and then leveled out with a little fishtailing and then south they barreled past Elzey Avenue.
Lou looked to his left and what he saw next slowed everything to a crawl. He pulled over. The Amusement Park at The Mid-South Fairgrounds. A small, crummy iron and wood menagerie of rides and booths and stands shoved into a corner of a sprawling but mediocre sports complex for the city. The Parkway’s breadth allowed easy stopping and Lou did just that at Young Avenue.
He spotted the top of The Zippin’ Pippin, the park’s signature roller coaster, the splayed phalanges of The Spider and a portion of the Whirling Teacups ride. Lou had never actually been on the park’s grounds, but he lied about this. Lied about this all the time. He couldn’t help himself. He’d heard many stories about the magical nights at the park, but the stories were always based on events no one else could remember, verify or refute, so he knew he could get away with it. Damned lies.
The spirit of the amusement park that Lou wanted so desperately to be a part of came from one of the boys and he couldn’t remember which one, but he said that years ago Elvis would rent the place out from midnight to dawn and he remembered hearing he would take us and those were the best nights of my life because I had my girl June and she had them chocolate milkshake little titties and I just fell right in love and kept on fallin’ and Lou knew exactly what he meant and he wanted it. But he was never there. He couldn’t have it.
Long warm summer nights and the fading lilt of girls’ peeling laughter in their paper-thin starched dresses, crispy and crunchy, and hair bows pink and blue, and blushed allowances for hands and hearts with giggles, and hard boozy breath on whisper-soft butter-cream necks until raw savage sex finds vent and she runs away, a-cackle. Let her go. The jeans and tee don’t care and a dab of the pomade rubs off on the Winston behind his ear and he smiles and she melts.
Lou hated that these memories were stolen. But if they’re real in the mind, how can they be fake? Elvis took his friends to the fairgrounds. They had fun. This happened. Fact. And Lou knew all of them. Most of them. Enough. I get it, I get it all, so therefore, I get them. Right? Fuck. If your family goes to dinner without you, can’t you, ten years after the fact, honestly lie and say you were there? The night dad got drunk and slapped the cute waitress’s ass and mom threw her pea soup on him and punched your sister for giggling and then the cops showed up. You know all the players. You know the restaurant. You knew it was inevitable. You know everything. Except you weren’t there. But you may as well have been. That’s what Lou reasoned. He may as well have been with the gang at the fairgrounds. And that settled it. I was there. And man, was it great!
He put the car in drive and eased on down the Parkway and took the ramp down to Southern and made a left and drove by the southern edge of the amusement park, but he didn’t look at it. He just drove on and passed the train yard, took a left on Goodwyn and preemptively looked at Delly.
Where we going, boss?
Home. Got to take a shit.
So, go on to the underground after that?
Delly turned and looked out the window and watched the golf course at the Memphis Country Club. He slightly shook his head as the right side of his mouth got pulled up in a smile and he couldn’t resist so he said, This one of your seven seconds jobs?
Normally, Lou would have lit into him but the reverie of the sensual, and real, remembrances of hanging with Elvis and the gang at the fairgrounds calmed him and he said, I don’t know.
Delly was surprised at the calm response, but he didn’t let on. To be surprised would be to validate some distinct maturity on Lou’s part and maturity was always something he thought he had on Lou. He saw the small game he played here and decided it was harmless but then after a moment he really did feel good that his boss said that. I don’t know.
There was something in the tone of Delly’s use of the word ‘the’ in front of ‘underground’ that made Lou realize the absurdity of it all. The specificity. Like it was all one big underground. But of course. That’s right. It is. Wasn’t that exactly what Elvis was doing by commandeering the amusement park? His underground? His safe place in the dangerous world? He went to the carnival when no one was there. A closed carnival for privacy. That’s smart. That’s underground. The light at Central burned green and Lou drove through it at ten mph. Yeah, well, after I do my business, I figure we’ll go on out to the drive-in movie and read some magazines or whatnot, he said.
The drive through Chickasaw Gardens was nice. Lake. Ducks. Kids. Lou pulled into his driveway and before Delly could say that going to the drive-in movie and read magazines was one of the dumber thing he’d ever heard, he grunted at something up ahead and Lou looked and saw Jackie’s Cadillac in his back drive and the kitchen door to his house wide open.
Lou stopped the car on a dime, pitching them both forward like soccer players trying to head the ball, but he knew it was too late. Then one of Jackie Dunlop’s boys appeared in the door. A shotgun on his hip, a smile on his face.
We know it was you, Lou. So come on clean, and we won’t main you, Jackie said. They stood in the middle of the front living room with arms spread so two of the boys could pat them down. Delly’s heavy black revolver got confiscated with a grin and Lou was found to be unarmed.
This was serious and Delly knew it. Like the country club he had just watched from the car, this room in Lou’s house, the formal living room that was never used, was not physically off-limits to Delly but practically it was. He could walk through, sit for a spell if on official business and maybe even thumb through a glossy Robb Report or Southern Living, but it would only be an integrated space, like a waiting room or water fountain, by law. Delly could be there, but the couch, the house, the block, city and mayor all seemed sore about it. Delly got twitchy.
Nervousness has many forms and fear of death promotes a special breed. To be is to live. To live is to fear. And fear can kink up the whole daisychain. What did the Reverend King say at the temple all those years ago? The spiritual, the biblical, the restraint? We will not fight with our fists and clubs and guns. We will fight with our dignity. Fine, but shouldn’t there be something, anything, between a .44 Magnum and an idea?
Delly cut his eyes from man to man until he had established direct ocular contact with each, and each time he connected he knew the crazy nigger act would play and play well. He closed his lips with a pinch, flared his nostrils, and bugged his eyes to a degree. And he watched it succeed. Cracker nightmare indeed. A deranged black man in a powder keg predicament where a feel-good law was one hundred percent behind him, but harsh reality kept him chained to the stake, and he knew this to be one of the situations where being dead right was highly likely. So, with a finishing touch, Delly adjusted his stance a bit so the impression of his knowing a little karate was plausible. Very plausible.
I want it back, Lou, and I want it now, Jackie said.
Want what back?
Jackie looked around the room, making sure to glare at Delly for a long moment, and then he put his Chelsea boot on the arm of the sofa where Lou sat and leaned down to Lou and said, Lou, we had our differences, and I know you left on bad terms, but this is just plain childish. And stupid. And you will get hurt.
I swear Jackie, I didn’t take anything. Nothing. I saw you on the TV and I didn’t even know you had any porcelain figurines out there… not to mention priceless ones. I swear, Jackie, it wasn’t me, whatever was taken.
Jackie stared into Lou’s eyes, looking for conviction. But he found none. And that made Lou all the more untrustworthy. That your final answer?
Yes, sir, my final answer, Lou said. Yes, sir.
It’s the truth, so why wouldn’t it be?
I don’t know. Why I’m making sure.
Alright, then. Jackie ran dry of logic. Usually in a situation like this, he would press on. He would force himself relentlessly onto his foe. But this was different. This was a priceless piece of porcelain, thank you, Donna. And Jackie couldn’t jeopardize its safe return. He didn’t know what to do next so he figured a little freestyle ad libbing threats would work, so he said, Who’s your little Mooslim buddy over there? He your enforcer? Why do you need an enforcer, there Lou? Huh? Got something to hide? Need protection? Protection from what, Lou?
The tension exploded, and all the men braced. Pistols got regripped, palms got sweaty and stances were widened, but Delly didn’t twitch a cell, save his eyes, which were no longer cutting but now sweeping like radar.
Mooslim? Aw, you mean Delly? He’s not a Mooslim. Christ, Jackie, that ole boy, why, he goes to church more than…
Shut up. I think he’s a government hating, America hating, enemy of democracy. A terrorist. Like them crazy Kaddafis or whatever, cause that’s what this is, you know, a act against America. Ripping off Graceland like that.
The man’s name is Delano Roosevelt Hunter. I call him Delly, but he’s got a gal problem and now he wants to be called De La Roo, and I just don’t think that’s a good…
Shut up, Lou! Jackie took his brown boot of the sofa, wagged his pistol in Lou’s face and crossed to confront Delly. Mr. De La Roo, I got no beef with you. You are free to walk if you so choose. But if you stay…
I ain’t going no where, Delly said. And don’t call me no terrorist again.
Jackie took a step in and jutted his chin up at Delly’s. Do you hate Jews?
I don’t know what a Jew is, Delly said down his nose.
Cause we got a couple of Jews right here in this room.
That’s fine, because like I say, I don’t know what one is, so you best not be calling me no terrorist again.
I’ll call you what in the hell I feel like calling you, boy, Jackie said, backing off and grinning, grinning like the man with the biggest gun in the room. You ain’t in charge in this town. I am. There ain’t no Nation of Islam here. No Black Panthers neither. No Hueys or Malcolms or Raps or any of them fucking terrorists. No sir. We’re all Americans in this country. We may have had a little bit of a bad past around here, but bygones are bygones, boy. And any revenge shit will get you kilt, I shit you not.
Delly was stunned at Jackie’s naiveté. No Brotherhood in the city? he said. We got Panthers and Invaders all over the place. You best think again, because I can take you to a crib right now where the blackest motherfucker you ever seen called The Slicer will cut of those little peanut balls of yours and feed ’em to his goose. I could show you around the…
Jackie butted in, And I could take you to a deep dark den of lion thieves where a bigass white boy named Luther Lee will beat the Iz-Lamb out of you with a spiked stick.
As I was saying, I could show you on around to… Delly said.
And Luther Lee’s cousin is a boney fide church preacher! Jackie said.
And my daddy was a preacher, one of the boys said, so that makes it okay!
Everybody looked to the son of the preacher man. And there was silence.
Well, let’s not bring preachers into it, Jackie said.
But you brung it up when you said…
I know what I said, and alls I’s trying to get across was the complexity of the issue, okay? It’s just, it’s just, that this here’s a Christian nation, not a mooslim’s nation. We got rules and bylaws and whatnots, and that shit just ain’t right. Won’t stand for it. Jackie looked away from everyone. He fiddled with his belt, embarrassed his tough guy moment went south.
Lou got a puzzled look and said, But what about the mafia, there Jackie? You boys call yourselves the Memphis Mafia and the real mafia kills people and judges and runs dope and women and cigarettes…
Look! Jackie said. We call ourselves the…
Yeah, Jackie, why do we call ourselves the mafia? said one of the boys.
Jackie paused, his hands akimbo and eyes fixed on the floor. He took a deep breath, shook his head and snickered in bravado. We call ourselves, the mafia, for... It’s just a figure of impression or whatever, like a missed nomer or whatnot. A alleglory. Or something. The press started it up. I don’t know! It’s for show. God damn it!
If there were in the whole of the universe a needle long enough and sharp enough to puncture man’s indomitable bubble of buffoonery, it had just been used to devastating effect. Perfect peace reigned. Truth been told. Catless bag.
So, you can call yourselfs mafia when you ain’t, and I can’t call myself Muslim, even if I was? said Delly.
You just said you weren’t! said Jackie.
I changed my mind.
You can’t change your mind!
I just did, Delly said. He shook his head back and forth and sat on the wide wood windowsill behind him. He crossed his arms. Hypocrisy, man, hypocrisy…
Well, I guess that’s just the way it is, now ain’t it?! Jackie said.
This really isn’t making much sense, said Lou.
I ain’t here to make sense! raged Jackie. Life ain’t supposed to make sense! It never will! So, shut up! The all of you! This silenced the room again with as much profundity as the last silence. But Jackie felt better about this silence. He figured now that sense had been ruled out, he could go on back to the issue at hand.
Delly scratched the side of his nose with his big middle finger. One of the boys realized his pistol’s safety was on, and he slyly switched it off. A car drove by. Then another. A little bluebird came and perched on the hanging tube feeder that one of Lou’s ex-girlfriend’s had given him for a birthday. Lou saw it and thought, Stupid bird. I never even put food in it once.
Jackie crossed back to Lou, put his hands on his knees and leaned over and said, I’m here to get back what you stole. Is that clear enough for you? But I’m a somewhat reasonable man, and I am giving you and the… black man, a break. I know you’re a liar because I know you, and I know he’s a liar because he just flat out admitted it…
Changing my mind don’t make me no liar, muttered Delly while looking out the window to maybe disguise who was speaking.
Shut up, you! one of the boys said.
Jackie watched the floor between his knees and waited for the little dust-up to settle. He raised his face back up to meet Lou’s. Lou, you got twenty-four hours. You run? I’ll catch you. You hide? I’ll find you. You fight? I will kill you. You do none of the above, and I’ll still do all the above.
Jackie raised up, stood tall, trained his pistol and blasted a bullet that left a smoking hole in an overly taut cheek in the oil portrait of the man of the house on the wall of the house behind the man of the house himself.
Shit, Jackie… Lou said turning to look at his portrait.