If you’ve read my previous write-ups, you know that I come from Memphis. Memphis, TN, I love that backwater town. I love it the way you love a brother, or maybe a cousin. You love them, even when you don’t like them. Memphis has been called “the murder capital of America.” The homicide rate in my hometown often surpasses that of Chicago. I write a lot about Memphis, about my family and growing up there, and perhaps not by coincidence, I write a lot about murder.
There’s a moment in our lives where points converge in a sublime manner. Where the gesture, or the words you need are there like a butterfly in your hand, waiting to be released. There is another moment where the moon and stars are defiant, refusing to align, and what happens in that moment haunts you the rest of your life.
In Memphis, in a time, teenagers—teenage boys, and ones of errant ways—were sent to either the euphemistically named “Training Center”, or a facility called Tall Trees. Word was that Tall Trees was the harsher, and rougher of the two. My cousin Tony spent a good deal of his youth at Tall Trees.
Tony and I were kin, but we came from different worlds. As strident a place as my home was, it was congenial and calm, compared to his. In 1983, I turned nineteen, he turned twenty-four; by then, Tony had more or less straightened himself out. But Memphis was what it always was, and in the spring of that year, murder was more than a headline.
In ’83, Tony’s mother—my Aunt Rae—was robbed, then shot and killed on her way home from a concert in downtown Memphis. Her body was left in the thick, green brush that thrives in our temperate climate.
We gathered at the house; Uncle Herman, Aunt Rae’s husband, my cousin Connie, Tony’s sister. Tony, of course, was there and I was there. The TV was on. One of those old console TVs. I remember it always smelled like lemon furniture polish.
“This is Action News 5”. There was a voiceover. I was standing beside Tony. The last time we stood that close we were kids, and he socked me in the arm. “The body was found in a remote…” There was a gurney, and the body was being moved.
The room went cold, no one spoke; Tony’s face was contorted with pain. I reached out to give him a hug and he pushed me away.
Some moments you replay in your head as if they were old home movies. Some run through your head like a man on fire.
I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t hurt. I was ashamed, which is far, far worse; shame has a staying power. It outlives anger, it lives long past hurt feelings. I love my cousin, but I hadn't seen him in a decade, at least; nothing in our history entitled me to make such an intimate gesture.
A friend of mine called recently with his own unwelcome news. Tim had just been diagnosed with testicular cancer. The prognosis was good. But he was going to need months and months of treatment and chemotherapy.
I hung up the phone. My dad was there and I told him the news. My father and I have never been close; he reached out to give me a hug me and I pushed him away.
I could smell the furniture polish. I could see the console TV. My dad stared at me, uncomprehendingly. Why can’t I comfort you, he asked, and I felt then as I know Tony did that day.
Some moments replay in your head like an old mixtape, some run like a broken main. I love my dad, the way I love Memphis. I answered with silence. A simple tool. Blunt, but effective. Punishment, you see, and it worked; that moment will haunt me the rest of my life.