A transvestite comes to terms with the hatred imbedded in his father and his hometown.
In the Shadow of Graceland
Note: This must be read with a Memphis accent.
- The Author
I saw the same transvestite prostitute who wore the same red dress every morning on the corner. And then there was the arthritic wheezing one sitting on his peeling front porch with head sunk down into his lap, always trying to catch some breath, not hearing the Vietnamese gang up on the next corner crowding the sidewalk. They didn’t know any better.
But the smell of frying chicken still wafted from open kitchen windows on Sunday afternoons, and the boys and girls were still promised heaven-for-the-faithful at a thousand Grace Baptist churches, large and small, and niggers really still knew their place even though everyone acted as if that was long ago. Crosses still burned, though no one saw them anymore. The uppity ones were the gooks.
He/She went by the appellation Tara, and no one drove by and picked her up from the corner anymore. They used to swarm there, or so it seemed to Tara, in their T-Birds and Cadillacs and Lincolns; now she longed for an old rattly Corolla with probable danger and pain inside. But there was always hope in her eyes, that is until they filled with tears. Not even the church deacon would come anymore, who of course never had met Tara on the street but wound through alleyways to come to Tara’s back door. Tara missed his balding head, his paunch, the shame in his eyes of a man driven to Sodom and thus to hell by his desires. Tara had long ago stopped trying to make him see, and then the next year even he quit coming.
But every afternoon, even when the sun caused sweat-stained dresses, Tara waited patiently, all so patiently, smelling of lilac and standing straight as a board. Straight as a board, ladies stand, straight as a board, she could hear from the next class when she was nine and learned in her class how boys bowed and conducted themselves as proper Southern gentlemen. Learning that way on Thursday evenings, and the other ways Southern gentlemen acted late, late Saturday nights when the boy couldn’t sleep for fear of the screams in the field behind the house. Sometimes it was just his father and friends drunk and rowdy, but other nights the piercing screams couldn’t have come from them, but rather . . . Tara/Tommy refused to know.
Memphis. Memphis born and bred. Just give me some baby back ribs and a touch of the old religion coming up through the Delta, permeating Memphis like Stax Records had too in the sixties. That, and the Grand Ole Opry, and Richard Petty, and Jerry the King Lawler from Memphis, Tennessee no doubt.
Red was Tara’s color. Tara always wore Red. Tara could never bleed so she wore red on the outside. Tara wanted to bleed red and connect to the full moon and the cool Earth, cool even on steamy Memphis summer nights, Tara wanted to bleed red and be cool like the mother in the sweaty heat of Memphis summer nights. Red was Tara’s color.
The recording studio at Sun Records was smaller than most people’s living rooms. But from it came Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Johnnie Cash, and of course the King himself. If he’d just stayed in Memphis . . . well he never left Memphis, so really if he’d just never gone to Hollywood. But he did, and so he died at Graceland twenty years after Love Me Tender premiered. When will the North ever forgive the South, and quit beating us to a pulp – all of us, black and white and red-dressed, for having a soul?
Tara walked down the road to the corner grocer to get a Nehi. Grape today, though orange was heaven too. Straight out of the bottle like God intended. Her, for a woman’s, oversized adam’s apple moved up and down, up and down, as grape ambrosia slid down her throat. She was introspective today, and felt like not feeling. So it was time to go visit Daddy because whenever she did she felt numb. She set the empty Nehi on a front step and waved at her neighbor as she climbed them one two three and entered the air conditioning. In the bathroom she washed off all her makeup, being sure to leave none on, took off her wig, took off her dress and her cool cotton underthings – so loving their soft freshness. Went to the back of the closet and pulled from the floor the boxers, a pair of tight straight-leg blue jeans, a white cotton T-shirt. They were on in a second. She found the hair jel in the vanity and her comb, and slicked her hair back. There in the mirror: there he was, the young androgynous pouty Elvis of 1956 himself in the twenty-first century.
Caught the bus to father’s. The sun beat down on the roof. The air conditioning barely worked, and there was Negro smell on the bus mingling with the diesel fumes. Tara closed her eyes until she felt the bus making the turns that suggested she was nearing her neighborhood. The city had caught up with her boyhood home, and there were no longer innumerable fields. The bus connected more frequently too, thank the Lord, for many times Tara could not suffer to stay long at Papa’s. He was a tired old man now, wheezing from fifty-five years of 2 ½ packs of non-filter Pall Malls daily and too long dry weeks between Saturdays of whiskey. Tara walked in the house, letting the screen door crack closed – bam – startling the dozing rail of a figure. Tara walked over to the couch and dropped the carton of Pall Malls next to his father’s narrow hips, red box in contrast to the pea green of the couch.
His father didn’t say anything. Tara thought he heard a grunt, and a hand reached for the carton of smokes. Walked into the kitchen and began cutting bologna thick for sandwiches, opened the bread box and got the Rainbo bread and an open bag of chips, then lingered at the Sterling cans in the frigidaire, staring numbly, before reaching for the pitcher of sweet tea. He heard his father shuffle into the bathroom. He heard the long stream, the grimaces of pain, and finally the flatulence. Tara felt the often felt tinge of disgust that came only in this house she had played cowboys and Indians in.
Tara was sitting at the table eating her bologna when Daddy shuffled in, chest barreled and bent over. Looked like an old lady. Sat down next to Tara, smelling of yesterday’s sweat, and picked up his sandwich.
Looked over at Tommy - didn’t say a word. Took a bite of the bologna and as he began chewing it Tommy could hear the phlegm starting to rattle in his lungs and rise up, he started to wheeze and choke. “Ain’tcha gonna gimme a beer, boy?” he gasped.
Tommy walked over to the frigidaire and brought him one, opening it. He watched as his father continued, choking and spitting as he ate, swallowing half the can in one sustained gulp. Not a word again. Tommy finally couldn’t stand it, and walked out the door to the back porch. Stood on it and stared silently at the field remaining behind the house. Finally went back in.
“How ya been?”
“Been to the doctor lately?”
His father stared at him in answer with the pent up rage of the dying. Lit a cigarette and smoked as he ate. No more words. Tommy couldn’t take it, and walked out the front door, leaving it open to let the breeze in.
The bus blew exhaust in his face as it pulled away, and Tara looked right and left, up and down the street. Began walking down the block, hearing the guttural Asian dialect. Three Vietnamese teens leaned against a building and two more sat on motor scooters on the sidewalk. They all wore jeans and white t-shirts, and they looked like creatures from purgatory with their glazed, hard eyes and their sneering lips. The smell of reefer wafted on the corner. Too much pain hidden beneath layers of toughness. Let it ease up. Let it ease up. Tara slowed for a moment, as he would have to squeeze between them, but then slicked his hair back with the comb and walked forward with sure steps. They weren’t nothin.’ He’d seen them for years. They nodded at him as he walked by as Tommy and he smiled like Tara in return.
As Tommy neared his house he could hear sharp Yankee twang, and as he climbed his steps he slowed, seeing the three young men on the wheezing arthritic one’s front porch.
“You looking at us?” a pretty blonde one said.
“ . . . you dumb cracker,” a pimply one added.
Tommy stopped and eyed them up and down. He squinted in the sunlight and could make out a swastika on the redhead’s shoulder, easy to see on the lily-white skin. All three had buzzcuts and a snarl. Two were pimplefaces. They were skinheads for sure. Yankee skinheads down to visit the relatives. “Zeig heil and all that,” Tommy muttered and floated into the coolness inside. Tommy knew their kind, way worse than rednecks. He went back to the bedroom and peeled off his clothes. Back into the cool fresh cotton, he thought, and pulled on fresh lingerie from the dresser with fan-tailed knobs. Fanned himself with yesterday’s newspaper as he felt a breeze coming in the side window, half-looking out the window toward the street and half-looking at himself in the mirror. A radio blared hip hop on the street.
Tommy got off the bed, sashayed over to the make-up chair in the bathroom, and sat down, staring at himself long and hard in the mirror. Tonight he would go wash away his father’s ghost. Water started running hot, too hot, so to scald him, “good,” he spit out, “wash it all away, scourge it all away, the sins of the father.” Would it be the apricot facial scrub, the avocado perhaps, or the peach, such a southern lady? Hands shook as he reached for one after the other, throwing them in turn down in disgust. He was not going to be pretty tonight no matter what he did, he already knew that. “God damn it,” he cursed in his Tommy voice. Finally washed his face violently with a touch of avocado.
He felt like avocado tonight, or would, he knew. The softness came just for a moment. Found the foundation in his disheveled pile of make-up bottles and rubbed it with a violence over his cheekbones and forehead.
Wondered why his hands shook as he reached quickly for the brush, but he really already knew. The rouge went on mechanically, and he began to dance a dance in the chair, swaying slowly to the sounds of Lou Reed coming from a boom box on the street, softly singing the chorus of his song, it had always been his song even before he knew he was Tara:
Holly came from Miami FLA
Hitchhiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says ‘hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
said ‘hey honey, take a walk on the wild side’
And the colored girls say ‘do, do, do do do, do, do, do, do do do, do, do do. . .”
And he swayed and swayed and was lost. Reached for the black eyeliner, and as he opened it he watched his hands shake as if they were someone else’s. God damn that pappa, he thought. Why do I go visit him? Tara’s hands continued in palsy as he tried to draw a straight line under his eye. “God damn it,” he cursed as he reached for a kleenex to wipe off the eyeliner. He tried again, holding his breath. . . . Reached again for the Kleenex. I have no business going out tonight, Tara thought, I can’t even get my make-up on. He tried again. With no luck this time he sighed. Felt like crying. Finally willed his hands to stop, he wanted out of the house so bad. Got it good enough, and breathed a sigh of relief. Puckered up and through a kiss at the mirror. “You old transvestite.” Went out to the front room and watched the latest bank robberies and car smashups on the six o’clock news. The numb he had started the day with continued to haunt him.
As the sun went down, dark storm clouds with the last of the summer sun shining orange on them blew in quickly over Memphis. One of those fast summer storms that is here and gone. Lightning flashed in the distance. Tara walked out on the front porch and breathed in the electricity. Stood silently until the street went from dusk to dark. A wind blew up and died down. Walked down the front steps and started her stroll towards the bar, hips swaying and head held high. Straight as a board, ladies stand, straight as a board. She looked over at the Yankee punks still on their front porch step, and saw their mouths hanging open. Yes you dears, she thought, ain’t I the beautiful one?
Two blocks farther the wind started blowing up and then dying down. Her dress would flutter up as the wind grew. Tara quickened her pace. It might rain after all. In the next block the storm clouds broke torrentially, a surprise for Tara, she thought at most a light sprinkle. It poured and poured as she ran for the next block where there were stores with overhangs that would shelter her from the sheets of rain. She reached the first one, Billy’s Electronics Repair Shop, and stood nervously under the overhang as the rain came down. She became lost, thankfully, in the din of the rain pelting the overhang and the sidewalks, in the sound of water splashing from cars driving by. The sudden shift to a light sprinkle startled Tara into the present. She looked right and left, and then turned to see if she could see her reflection in the store front. She swiveled and froze, caught in the hideousness of the reflection in the window: black eyeliner smeared down face, wig disheveled and ugly on her head, dress soaked and hose mud-splattered. She stared and stared, feeling the hate build, and then it melted into sadness and she sunk to her knees with torrents of tears pouring out. She cried and cried and cried deep sobs until they slowed and she lifted herself slowly, like an old woman, like her father, to her feet. “I am not going on,” she whispered, and turned to walk back through the drizzle. It felt good on her face as she walked towards home. It was dark and humid, and smelled like Memphis after a rain.
In her block, the Yankees appeared out of an alleyway.
“Hey, queer where’re you going?”
“Home . . . You old Farley’s relatives?” Tara asked politely.
“Been sucking anything, queer boy?”
“No need to get personal,” Tara smirked, and started walking briskly past them. An arm reached out and grabbed him. Spun around, a fist connected and Tara fell dizzily toward the pavement. On the way down, a board cracked on her head and she felt the kicks. Already too dizzy to fight, she felt herself dragged around the corner and the fists, the boards, the feet rained down, but she couldn’t pass out. Beaten and bruised and bleeding. They attacked over and over and over with the fury of the disenfranchised until Tara was past pain to the shock of life threatening trauma.
“Gonna kill you, queer boy.”
“Rid the world of homos and jews.”
“Not so pretty now, are you queer boy?”
Somewhere out of the dizziness she heard a sound, and the bludgeoning stopped. She felt the blood running down her forehead into her eyes. Time began ticking again with the pounding pain in her head and body.
“What’s goin’ on here?”
Through the darkness of the alleyway and the blood swimming in her eyes, she could make out three more hoods, and she recognized the voice. It was the Vietnamese.
“Having a little fun with this queer.”
“Anybody ask you to do this on our street?”
Tara sensed the skinheads’ fear, their realization that once again they were not in control.
“Didn’t think you’d mind.”
Tara heard wood crack against bone, he heard the familiar sound of the switchblade opening, and the fight began on top of him. Now I can pass out, he thought. His eyes fluttered, but he didn’t pass out, instead rolling to the brick wall. There were broken bones, he felt, and he would need stitches. The Yankee punks were already running, two dragging one. The Vietnamese surrounded Tara.
“You all right?”
Tara/Tommy looked up at them, and the three looked down on his bleeding face. Knowing how it was they walked away.
As their steps receded, he heard one say, “This is our street.”
“God damn skinheads ruining the neighborhood. You hear that one squeal when I stuck him.”
“They was scared little kids, couldn’t even fight.”
“We represented that time, didn’t we?”
Red was Tara’s color. Tara always wore red.