I am sitting in a bar near the corner of Madison and North Cleveland in Memphis with a woman named Sherry. It’s the summer of 1972, and I haven’t seen her in five years. I found her by accident an hour or so ago when I was driving around the campus of Memphis State University. Sherry was walking, walking fast, and she looked agitated or aimless. It was hard to tell which. I picked her up as if I had seen her a few days before, and we headed to Uncle Sam’s, a gaudy red, white and blue joint decorated to take advantage of the owner’s first name. Inside, we drink in the cool air, and look for purpose in the beer, which comes in pitchers, and the music which comes from a jukebox.
I have been out of the South the last three years and did not see Sherry for two years before that. I never saw her often, but we created some kind of strange bond the first time we met, and I have always felt some inexplicable closeness with this woman who for much of the time seems to be teetering on an edge that I don’t fully understand. It feels like that closeness is still there between us.
The first time I met Sherry was in the back lot of a drive-in restaurant on Sumner called Monty’s. She was a little high, sitting in the back of a car playing her ukulele and singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” She had this wonderful smile and a childlike vulnerability. That was in the spring of 1965, my freshman year in college. We saw each other some, though the bond was never romantic. I was still a frat boy intent on becoming a minister. She was a hippie before the word was invented. We went out a few times and wrote letters that summer when I went off to work in South Carolina. I think what made the bond between us stick more than anything was that both our mothers were addicted to prescription drugs. We had been hurt in different ways, but we shared a geography of sorrow that allowed us to find a little trail we could cross to connect with each other.
Our lives were made up of chance meetings. A couple of years later, I went to Memphis State for a year, and I would run into her on campus, where she picked up a little money modelling for art classes. She seemed deeper into the crazy life by then, and I kept track of her addresses which changed often. I wasn’t doing so well myself. I had given up on the ministry and had come to hate the whole frat boy thing. I was drinking too much, and one night she let me stay at her place to keep me from driving. The next year I went back to my liberal arts college where I had started and that was the last I saw Sherry until this day in 1972.
Still, we talk easily. Mostly she spins a gothic southern tale that could have come out of a novel. One day, Sherry, as she had always hoped she would, climbed aboard a train to New Orleans. It was a desire, I think, hatched out of an old Bukka White blues tune, one of those train songs about a woman hurting bad and waiting for a train to New Orleans to try to put all that pain behind her. New Orleans was a city for exotic dreaming, about the only southern city it was easy to imagine as a good place to lose one’s self and become someone else. Still, there were also songs and stories full of bad omens that marked the trail to the city of the House of the Rising Sun.
In New Orleans, she meets a man, a man of means, an artist, a concert pianist. They fall in love, marry and have a couple of children, but things go wrong somehow. He becomes abusive and beats her. She lives in terror. She tries to leave with the children, but he refuses to let her take them. She has no money, little understanding of the law, and so she runs back the way she came. Here she sits this day in an old blue plaid shirt, the sleeves rolled up, brown dungarees, and Red Wings laced to the ankle. She smells of sweat and sorrow.
We smoke my Winstons, and I buy the pitchers of beer. We keep them coming deep into the afternoon. It feels like some kind of vigil. I get up to play the jukebox often. The song of the day is Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” I am sure I play it at least 10 times. I distract myself from being overcome with Sherry’s sorrow by thinking about the song. How does Lou Reed get away with singing that line “Let the colored girls say.”?
When I was growing up, Memphis was peppered with signs that marked the races as Whites and Coloreds. The size of these signs dwarfed those in my hometown. It was as if in Memphis they were more worried someone might forget. The Crosstown Bus, which ran from downtown to a huge Sears and Roebuck Store, came down North Cleveland, and I am sure there was a stop on Madison very near the bar where we sat. The bus was full of black people crowded in the back of the bus. And the Sears store, like the rest of the city, never let you forget race. There was a huge water fountain station with about four fountains on the first floor marked “Whites Only.” I was a small child, but it bothered me that I never found the one for “coloreds.” It had been such a short time—four years after King’s death—since that long march over two decades which had revealed the use of “colored” to mark a people in all its ugliness. Now this hip New York guy had brought the word back minus the sting. That is some accomplishment, I think. The song and Sherry’s story also remind me of a movie from my high school days, “Walk on the Wild Side,” the story of a young man who goes to New Orleans and finds not the romantic city of the urban fairy tales, but the New Orleans of crime, prostitution, and lost innocence. It was in black and white and starred Lawrence Harvey and Jane Fonda. All of the songs and stories—old and new–and my own memories of New Orleans swirl around Sherry’s story and in and out of Lou Reed’s provocative invitation, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.”
I drop Sherry off at a house in midtown. It’s the last time I ever see her.
I am in Memphis a year, but we never call each other. I hear about her every now and then, even after I leave a year later. She stayed in Memphis and seemed to get a bit of a grip, but her childlike craziness started to irritate her old high school friends. They had grown up, gone to college, and now were trying to find their ways in their careers while raising children. Sherry was living a on the fringes of society but intruding into their world. They didn’t listen to the same music or laugh at the same jokes anymore.
One day one of Sherry’s pranks backfired and made her world even smaller. She broke into the house of two friends from high school to surprise them. Sherry was hiding in a closet waiting for the right moment to jump out and share her joke. Her friends, however, were having a frank talk, the way husbands and wives do about their friends. On this day, the subject was Sherry. Their words must have hit hard because she was unable to stay hidden and leave subtly when their backs were turned. Instead, she burst from the closet and ran out the door. They never saw her again. None of her high school friends ever saw her again though she did call one about 25 years ago. Just that one call and she wouldn’t say where she was.
As evening came on that day at Uncle Sam’s, I realized the day had beaten me down. I had come back to the South to start again after a failed marriage, running as I always will toward a South that is and isn’t there, a chameleon that calls me home only to pull the welcome mat from under my feet. A few days earlier, I stood before the door of my mother’s house in Jackson. She was so numbed out on pills she didn’t recognize me. “I’ve a sadness too sad to be true,” sang that Memphis boy Jesse Winchester who had wandered far in sadness looking for a home. For some of us, it is so hard not to feel lost no matter where we are.
That’s what I thought that day in 1972 and for many years after, but the course of life seems to level out a lot of things, even that strong sense of displacement. Life always has surprises for us, and who is to say it didn’t have some for Sherry too. Perhaps she went back to school and got her degree, found a man to marry and had more children. Maybe she struggled along like many of us who lived through that tumultuous time of the 60s and 70s but came out the other side. On my good days, that’s what I think. On my bad days, a shadow falls over all the stories. Often, I play Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” and ponder this verse in particular:
If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well.