Everything was fine until my parents said I should leave. She’d help me pack my bags as long as I didn’t disturb him. He was too busy shouting until we were old enough to know why. He grew a beard, wore rings on every finger, and ate napkins dusted in parmesan and dipped in vinegar.

When I took off, they sounded like I’d committed treason, but I know they knew the reason. I miss them every time the sun goes down and I play pinball in my head. Book and I’d just as well be left alone, as I told them at “The Station.” We lean on each other when I walk home and even hold hands. Aren’t books funny?

I preferred the dark side of the county, not the powder blue side of the Sound, in the shadows of Sleepy Hollow, not far from Roosevelt’s place, on the road to Manhattan. I’d been raised on the Mississippi, an altogether different place. No one swims the Hudson. It doesn’t contain water. It’s always belonged to the rich, unlike the Mississippi. It embodies all that is known and then some. It holds the land. It encircles the earth. West Point, that cool cat school where men still train to remain calm under fire, lies in its valley, in Cheever country, where he and his swimmer friends drank themselves silly. No Twain here; no Melville. He had to go to sea to find water. Writers here are afraid of water. Saul Bellow, a merchant marine? Hyde Park to the north, Yonkers to the south; lose one’s way and wind up in the Bronx, not far from that immortal stadium, where the Yankees play, just up from Maya Angelou’s Harlem. You know, Vanderbilt country. Dutch don’t write. They buy and sell.

I thought day and night of my past. I talked of nothing else. First the sky, black or blue, depending on the time. By day, Memphis blazes, 100 degrees in the shade; the sky, panty blue, like the Long Island sound, but humid. By night, I counted lightning bugs galore and stars, eerie. Dazzling and quiet, as from the Mississippi, slaves once dragged bales across cobblestones. Dobbs Ferry was all about cobblestones, too.

Color of my eyes? My mother’s? It was morning glories we beheld, not roses. Roses came in black back then, not in blue. I did see Father many times, but I don’t remember his eyes. White and black photographs showed us in our pajamas. With little bows and arrows scrawled across the tops. Bugles and drums decorated our blue bottoms. Snow cones at Tobey Park had been that hue, too.

From two to six, TV’s Happy Hal hawked Beatles wigs to kids like me with giant waxen lips. Friday nights, close to midnight, Boris Karloff, our best friend, dropped in for chips and dip and stolen Tootsie Pops.

The Pink Palace was dad’s fortress of art and power, in costumes he designed himself: a clown, some whimsy, a melancholic smile, despair, or an oriental stare. In make-up and girdles, a sword, a pistol, a tunic or robe, tights and sandals, shaped from plastic or leather, Father directed Kiss Me Kate. “Give them some cleavage. Show ‘em your tits.”

Dress rehearsal. He spoke to me: “You’ll eat it and like it. Get your ass over here, or no dinner for you.” And then he yelled at his assistant: “Mrs. Rosenthal? She wants the part? Goddamn it! Would somebody get her the fucking script?” The actors above; a black man below, bathing in the basement ditch, a smelly remnant of Jake’s endeavors. Dad was still at it, this time to my mother: “Stop talking and bring me two aspirin.”

I read the reviews of the greatest show on earth. The boosters took stock: “It is a miracle, stupendous, a brilliant start.” The theatre was packed; no one could get in. He was selling tickets, ten bucks to crawl through the attic, to stand at the back. Not wanting to stay; please no longer. Not one more hour, not another minute, not five measly seconds more. My mother couldn’t get out of town fast enough. She tried to quit drinking, to stop punishing herself for allowing him to insist on yes, always to demand the store.

It felt right that the old man passed away. His heart was black and blue. He beat himself up and beat me, too. When I think of Memphis, I think of death, but not from long ago, and not from Yellow Fever. Brother Martin was first to go and then Vernon Presley’s loving son, Elvis.

This December, the trees in our yard will come down, felled by an ice storm, torrential and freezing. Birds will be heard, not chirping but mocking. Dad’s gone now, thank goodness; there was only Mother left for now.

We are drawn back in adult life, it is said, to scenes of childhood unhappiness, says the noted biographer. Harold Pinter took his wives to Cornwall to see where he had spent the blitz. Thomas Bernhard, my favorite, picked at his wartime memories like a scab, but for me, was childhood a source of such everlasting pain? I wonder.

I remember so much, but especially hiding in the gigantic tractor tires at the Firestone warehouse. Was that so bad? Or scrounging for tossed paper cups on the floor of the grandstands at Tobey Park, so we could refill them with free Coke. We washed them out in the public restrooms like good little boys. The smell of fresh urine made us work fast. Pinter is said to have had a Lord of the Flies childhood surrounded by cruel children. The ones I grew up with could have been cast in Platoon, that brutal depiction of Americans at war, sadists having a ball killing babies in Vietnam. Those guys could have come from my neighborhood in Memphis, each and every last one of them.

They’d put a cigarette out in your eye. They loved a good punch-up; “meet me after school.” The neighborhood consisted of whites who feared the opposite sex as much as they despised the opposite race. We were black or white in those days. The only Mexican restaurant was 50 miles away across the river. We stayed to ourselves. It’s hard to say who was more dangerous, but if black, I’d have stayed off the streets on our side of town.

But unlike Pinter the playwright and Bernhard the Austrian, we were not driven out by Allied or Axis strafing. Our neighborhoods were safe. There may have been bombings, but not over Memphis. This was the late 60’s, but in my house, it was still the Great Depression, prolonged by a father who missed it. We used to sit with the lights out to save electricity and ketchup bottles were tipped to catch the very last drop.

There was no allowance: “Get a job.” We threw newspapers at eleven and cut grass for a living. I stole quarters from my mother’s purse and did a lot of lying. Our father’s fake poverty was an act he’d perfected. He missed being deprived and wanted us to experience it. We were cut off in a period of unprecedented affluence. We were locked in the basement during the masked balls upstairs, a bit of Cinderella in 1969. “Don’t you dare take a bite. That’s for our guests.”

We hid in our rooms as the parties unfolded. We were not invited to our parents’ parties. They told people we hadn’t been born. Sometimes, I wished that I hadn’t. And I dreamed of being taken away. From time to time, a family friend might wander in and catch us with our pants down. She’d grasp her pearls and let out a cry. The door would close and we’d hide under our beds.

In the morning, we’d find hundreds of cocktail glasses in the sink. The refrigerator door would be left wide open. My parents would sleep all day and we’d be told to go to the neighbors when we got hungry.

But as phony as this baloney was, I’m not sure that it made me unhappy. We watched I Love Lucy and saved Beatles cards stolen from the five-and-dime. The starship Enterprise was there on the horizon and so was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. When I look back now, I’d say, it wasn’t so bad. I might even say we never had it so good.

When I had the chance, all by myself, like an orphan, I visited our rich neighbor, Mrs. Rabb, who walked our street with her quick-footed dachshund, Speedy, who became my friend. She showed me pictures of her son, a famous movie producer, then married to a great actress, on his safari trip to Kenya, poured milk and served homemade cookies, still warm from her black maid’s hands.

I told her stories. She made me start and restart my little stories until I got them right. She pressed me for details like the police inspector in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “Are you sure?” she asked, and then I’d have to double back and make up another lie. Her favorite was my story about my dear mother’s friend, Elvis Presley. My story went like this:

Mary had a little lamb sliced paper thin and tucked away between two slices of dark rye, with spicy peppers imported from Persia. Mary took a bite and declared it, for all who would listen, good. She said “boo” to scare away the pigeons. Mary’s older brother, me, had something else in mind when he woke that morning with a stiffy. His thoughts turned to making money, so he bought himself ten Disney stocks before breakfast.

That is all that I’ll say about my youth.

Mary’s sister Priscilla sat waiting at the curb, hoping to be picked up by a boy in a pink Cadillac. She heard that back in 1957, Elvis Presley once picked up a girl at this very corner and when she came back three hours later, she was wearing a big grin.

Mary’s mother was that very girl, the one picked up that day in 1957. He took her to his leopard skin-covered den and they played canasta. They ate peanut butter sandwiches and when she tried to kiss him, he pushed her away and called her nasty. Mary’s mother never lived down that day. She’d wanted to put her tongue all the way down Elvis Presley’s throat. (This part is true.)

Instead, he turned her over to his pals, a bunch of idiots from White Haven, Tennessee, who liked to drink Michelob and fart out loud. Mary’s mother, whose name was Trish, felt humiliated when the boys demanded her panties. One guy took them in his hands and shot them, like a rubber band, across the room. They landed on the antlers of a dead deer whose head hung above Elvis’s RCA. Little Earl, the youngest, got the bright idea to put his hand on the Bible and swear not to touch her if she promised to take off her bra. Steve grabbed her and laughed when he said he didn’t swear to nothing. Now that they had her bra and her panties, Neilson, the eldest, grabbed the frat house paddle and promised her 15 licks if she didn’t do as he pleased. He deducted three licks for every time she kissed one of their penises. The boys ended up with bright red lip prints all over their balls. Gus let her wear his underwear for doing him a special favor.

When Trish got home, her parents demanded to know what had happened. Had Elvis been a gentleman? Trisha told them everything, but she didn’t say she was still wearing Gus Chandler’s striped underpants or what she had to do to get them. Such an exchange invites conjuncture and the mature imagination runs to fantasy, to what men and perhaps women desire, but we are speaking here of teenagers, of the young and perverse, of those who are inexperienced and naïve. No, he didn’t demand sexual pleasure but humiliation, and not his own. He’d already received his kiss, but before he insisted on another, he lowered himself onto the floor and beckoned the innocent girl to follow. He commenced to walk crablike, backwards on all fours, with his bared crotch in the air. He made that desperate girl follow, with her dress pulled up, exposing her pink backside fully.

As he walked backwards, she crawled after him on all fours. When she caught up, he slowed to allow her to take him into her mouth. Then he took off, so she had to chase him with his ever-hardening cock ‘round and ‘round, with her dress flipped up and her ass bared for all to see. The other boys couldn’t control themselves and ran over to give her a whack. They hovered and smacked her until her ass brightened. They said they wouldn’t stop until she went down on Gus’ cock. Their paddling quickened and they paced their rhythm to the speed of her bobbing head. Gus remained nearly silent, but the others screamed when they saw that he had come in her mouth. They laughed when she cried. They only stopped when she promised to return to do it to them, and this time outside and around Elvis’ pool. They got her to swear on the Bible. In all the excitement, she swallowed, which thrilled them all the more.

Priscilla, Mary’s little sister, spent her entire life envying Trish. She, too, wanted the boys to take her panties. She hoped someone would ask to look up her skirt. To the very end, she sulked in her room and ate Haagen-Dazs ice cream. She weighed 217 pounds. Trish was said to have earned the respect of the Memphis mafia, if not of the King himself. The boys picked her up every weekend all through high school. She never had a steady, but she kept Elvis’ bodyguards entertained. She was happy to head out to Graceland anytime they called.

When Elvis went out to California, the boys took Trish down to Lake Sardis, where Earl’s parents had a small summer house with a large screened porch. On their first visit, things went terribly wrong when, in everyone’s excitement including hers, Trish managed to arrive at the cabin well past ten without a stitch of clothes. The boys had thrown each and every item out the window as they raced down Route 55. Lucky for them, they missed entirely this generation’s fascination with video and our mania for selfies. Thankfully, there was never a single picture taken of her and the boys.

Her daddy, Nash Castle, was a frat boy, a Bus. Ad. major who dropped out when his girl got pregnant. It was so hot in Arkansas that year, Trish used to do the housework without so much as a stitch, and when frazzled or in a rush, she’d rush out that way to hang the wash between two long poles at the back of our rental. I remember it well, because I could see from my bedroom window at the back. I couldn’t see her, but her silhouette appeared to dance behind the billowing sheets. And once, to my consternation, I watched as she clamped the wooden clothing pins to her nipples and pranced about as she pulled the sheets from the line and placed the wash in a powder-blue basket.

One day, someone called the police. When she answered the door, she remembered to throw something on, but the officer asked to search the premises. I was not at home. No one knows for sure, and she’s never said a thing, but there was a story that my father repeated. When the cop left some time later, he was wearing a great big smile and was heard by the neighbors shouting howdy many times from the driveway. Father used sex to humiliate, as did she. Mother loved to talk about my dick for no good reason. Out of the blue, she’d say size didn’t matter and make reference to the notion that magic is made with skill and inspiration, not natural endowment.

Nash and Trish Castle went to Memphis in 1963. Trish was a housewife and Nash worked for Southern Bell. Priscilla lived alone for quite some time in a white neighborhood that went black. She lost all her teeth, so everyone knew she couldn’t bite. The boys lined up at her back door. They handed her $5. She closed her eyes and thought of Elvis’ Cadillac.

That is just a story. The truth is much harsher. After all, how many canes can one observe without finally exploding? He walked with a cane and smelled like a mouse. He had food caked on his sleeves. There were stains on his cuffs, and he smelled of urine and old socks. His wife attacked him; she berated him. Eventually, the old man died of emphysema.

My mother promised to leave. “Why would you go to his funeral?” She didn’t want a priest or a minister. She demanded show girls and fireworks. She wanted to humiliate him. She ended up disgracing herself. She was glad he was dead. Glad he was gone. “Hallelujah.”

He begged not to be resuscitated, but she forgot. He wanted to die in peace, why not? She was asked but went silent. The paramedics smashed out his teeth and jammed a pipe down his throat. He lived for days. Before all that, he’d kept a lock on the door of the den. He ran in there to hide. She’d slap him in the face. She’d kick him. She’d become a drunk. She gulped down a few glasses of white wine and wanted to tell her side of the story. It was a story of abandonment, an empty nest. “Get out!” She refused to get him his meds. She told him to get them himself. “He can’t walk. He can’t drive.” She was too busy: “I have a life, too!”

He was deaf, but she accused him of faking. It was true that when he talked about money, his hearing came back. Suddenly, his hearing was perfect. When I mentioned money, he understood the figures. He smiled when he got a bargain. Money talks. When she complained, he said the batteries stopped. He couldn’t make them work. He turned them off. He’d grown tired of listening. 61 years. That voice. The rage. The badgering. The nagging. She wanted him to wipe the shit off the toilet: “You clean it!”

Unhappiness is intolerable. When does it turn to hate? Why does it turn to hate?

She drank white wine from a tumbler. She called her cousin in Kingston (yes, the one on the Hudson) and said she hoped he’d die soon. He was 67 but looked 80. She wanted some love before she died. She wanted some male attention.

“I thought we were going out for dinner. I’ve been waiting.”

“You’re drunk. I can’t go out with you now.”

She could barely stand and stank. She’d been drinking all day. Booze made her hate. It brought out the rage, the loathing. She was dying to make a statement. Oh, it boiled over, like a chemical reaction: quick lime and water. She overflowed with self-hatred. It was volcanic. My arrival set the fuse. The hatred couldn’t be contained. She belonged to the IRA. She was ready to die for a cause. He’d sit alone on the floor in front of the heater giving instructions, making demands, passing judgement. The body goes. He was cold. When she said she had a friend who had offered to go down on her, I left. It was time. That was my cue. Where was the exit?

Years earlier, we’d been happy. We threw corn nuts on the road to attract mockingbirds and crows. No one told us it was against the law to shoot them. At Christmas, we unscrewed decorative lighting from our neighbors’ doors and windows and smashed the bulbs on the sidewalk. We left their wreaths alone and pissed in the snow. We blocked the road with snow mounds, and when the drivers opened their doors, we pelted them with ice balls.

We were, in short, what was once called a bunch of chuckleheads, or perhaps today, I suppose, goofballs, although no doubt some wise guy at the high school might have labelled us juvenile delinquents.

We called what we did recreation. The elevators at the Century Building were open by day. We ran in hoping for a ride to the top of the world. Alas, the secretaries chased us back into the bright sun, promising to call 911. We then headed over to Krystal’s for ten-cent square hamburgers; we shared a chocolate shake and chipped in for fries.

The bridge was too far so we stayed where we were, just east of the Mississippi in Shelby County, stuck forever between the city zoo and Beale Street. When we got bored, which was every other day, we went out in the yard with daggers. We burned each other’s toes and plotted trips to the dogs. We ate potato chips at midnight and cried let’s go back tomorrow. We couldn’t sleep. Sunday school was just a racket; we could see through it, what with their picked-over donuts and stale coffee. Everyone believed in God, even if they were atheists. Now that’s my kind of place, but back then I found it hypocritical.

All we wanted was adventure, leering at one-foot drawings of pussy on the walls of underground storm drains, throwing Fourth of July firecrackers in the middle of November, or bicycling to the worm factory just behind the Police Academy. After dark, we hunted for smashed cola cups at the ball park and clung in the parking lot to the hoods of passing cars. Football players revved their cars and shook us off.

I for one feel sorry that it’s all been taken away and for no good reason. All the memories up in smoke. We’re required instead to dance to the threat of insurrection. Hip-hop is the music of indoctrination; we preferred rock or soul or best of all the blues; Furry Lewis got our attention when he played at the Overton Park Shell. The Old Forest full of heavy growth lures us back, but all we find is an empty lot in a ghost town called invention.


This is an excerpt from David Lohrey’s new anthology, Bluff City. You can purchase the book from Terror House Press here.