Southern Legitimacy Statement: Claire Fullerton is from Memphis, Tennessee, which immediately brings to mind the Mississippi River; the bridge that hovers over it on its way to Arkansas in the graceful shape of the letter M; historic Beale Street, Victorian Village; Voodoo Village; Memphis in May, The Pyramid; and Mud Island. But first and foremost, the very thought of Memphis brings to mind music– always, pervasively, ubiquitously, gloriously, Memphis music.
Five rings and Kakki finally answered her cellphone. I could just picture her springing to action, reaching into the back pocket of her jeans, expecting an emergency on the line as she stood in the barn of her horse ranch in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Kakki leads her life on call; she’s always ready for something.
“Hey,” I said, “you busy?”
“Never too busy for you,” she said. I could hear voices in the background, a gate latching, something metal jangling.
It’s a two hour time difference between California and Mississippi. It was just after eleven Kakki’s time, which is all but the middle of her day. “We have to talk about Ava,” I said. “What is this, she wants to move back to Memphis? Can you talk now, or do you want to call me back?”
I’ve had more friendships than I care to list come and go over the years. People I thought would be in my life forever fell by the wayside for one reason or another, some leaving me baffled and bruised, and second guessing, but Kakki Thornton and Ava Cameron have remained beside me. The progression of years and disparate locations hasn’t altered our bond one iota. We became friends when we were fifteen, and now that we’re in our mid-forties, each of us knows we’re in it for life. Our dogged loyalty to each other is partially based on longevity; we’ve invested too much time in each other to turn back now. We overlook the fact that we’re as different as night and day in what our lives have become, but we began at the same starting point.
“I tell ya, Celia,” Kakki began because she talks this way now. She never used to, but the past twenty years of working with horses in Mississippi has beaten the cultured notes of the lyrical Memphis accent we were born to right out of her diction. Her speaking voice is flat and direct now, robbed of its singing gentility, clipped to a hardened edge. “I’m just gonna support her,” she stated. “Ava’s unhappy; she’s been unhappy. She’s stuck in a podunk town out in the sticks of Columbia, Tennessee, and I’m telling ya, there’s nothing happening. You know their claim to fame is they’re the mule capital of the world, right? Not of Tennessee, I’m talkin’ the world; now what’s that tell ya?”
“I thought Ava’s new job at the library was going to change everything,” I said.
“Yeah, but there’s a bigger picture going on. It’s Stan. Let’s just say the thrill is gone. I think she’s ashamed to tell you everything because she’s so confused. Celia, I know it’s a long way to go and a lot to ask, but if there’s any way you could come down here, I’ll take some time off and the three of us can go to my lake house in Heber Springs.”
I’ve never entered an airport in all my life without feeling I’ve entered a time machine. I walk in shouldering my current caseload: my hopes, fears, worries; all the things that keep me myopically focused in the bubble of my life. But somewhere 33,000 feet up en route to my destination, I manage to switch the channel then disembark ready for adventure. Except when I’m going to Memphis. There the past comes hurtling full throttle to meet me. If it’s not at the gate, it’s waiting in the parking lot, smiling sardonically and holding the form-fitting coat of my childhood.
Ava was waiting in one of the black leather chairs at the bottom of the escalator as I descended. “I saw your shoes coming down first and just knew the rest was you,” she said, when I rushed into her arms. She was wearing a cotton, floral print dress and a matronly cardigan. On anyone else the ensemble would have looked frumpy, but on Ava’s red-headed, willowy frame it looked bohemian cool. I hadn’t seen Ava or Kakki in sixteen years, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Some people are so much a part of your psyche that their physical absence means very little.
I have a relationship with Ava that’s different than the one I have with Kakki. I understand them both, but have always wondered if they understand each other. I’m the friend in the middle, the interpreter, the neutral ground. I can’t say how this happened, beyond saying Ava and Kakki are at opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Ava is light and airy. She has a deep internal life she doesn’t easily reveal. Kakki, on the other hand, is earthy and practical, born with a take-charge ability that gets everything done. Both tell me I’m aloof and introspective, but that’s only because I experience the world from the outside in and am not given to extremes. There’s a side to the unions made in high school that has perpetual resonance, a side that remains in arrested development that will never let you forget who you essentially are.
Ava and I have a surfeit of Southern expressions we’ve used since high school. They were funny then, but funnier now that they’re inside jokes. We’ve always taken rapturous joy at using them. We get on a roll and try to top each other with the creative use of back-woods Southern parlance, lobbying colloquialisms at each other by getting into character and spinning them in an exaggerated accent. Many of them have a history, like the time, when we were sixteen, and Ava had just acquired autonomy by driver’s license. We were lost in downtown Memphis, desperately needing directions. Ava pulled into a gas station and rolled down her window, and an overweight attendant wearing a “How Bout Them Vols?” baseball cap leaned in and gave us directions by saying, “Well, yer best bet is to go up to the first red-light and take yer left.”
“What do we do if the light isn’t red?” I’d asked as we pulled out of the station. We’re still chewing on that one. Even after all these years, there are times I’ll ask Ava a question, and she’ll begin with, “Well, yer best bet.”
I wheeled my carry-on bag to the automatic doors, which swished apart to a humid inferno that slammed against me and followed me all the way to the car. I lifted my hair off my neck and said, “Good God, how does anyone live here?”
“Welcome to Memphis in the summertime,” Ava said.
I’ll always have a homing instinct that pulls me to Morningside Park from Memphis International Airport. My heart will always leap at touchdown to a rolling, manicured lawn, where a series of magnolias shade the front of a Southern Colonial house. There, my history lays frozen: My mother in the parlor, Teenie in the kitchen, Justin in his room playing his guitar. My older brother, John, will be nowhere around, but my father will arrive home any minute. There in that safe haven, my blue and white uniforms from Immaculate Conception High School hang in the front of my closet: white short sleeved blouses and baby-blue pop-overs that match the blue tartan skirts. But there was no home to return to now, and I stared out the passenger seat window thinking nostalgia has selective memory; it softens the heart and strips the details to leave you with what should have been instead of what was.
Kakki was standing in the driveway with her hand on her hip and her German shepherd beside her as the gates parted to her hundred and forty acre ranch. “It’s about time y’all got here, I thought for sure you were lost,” she said as we got out of the car. Ava lifted both of our suitcases out of the trunk, and I heard mine make a thud when its wheels hit the ground. “Celia, for God’s sake, you haven’t changed a bit,” Kakki said, reaching out to hug me. But I had, and we all had; that was the crime of it now. Yet here in Kakki’s driveway on the outskirts of Memphis, we might have been fifteen again, long before the world showed us its rough edges. I folded into Kakki’s arms, looked over her shoulder at Ava, and felt the axis of my world right itself.
“Y’all, I just want to say one thing,” Ava said, walking to us to lay her delicate hands on both of our shoulders. “I don’t want y’all to think you have to fix me, but thank God we’re together again.”
I took a step back, and as Kakki kept her hand on my arm, I realized we stood in a perfect circle. Here in its embrace, nothing could touch us; we were a unified force field of past, present, and future, the embodiment of world without end, amen.
“But if either of you has any idea how to fix me, let’s hear it,” Ava said.
“Well,” I began in my best Southern accent, “yer best bet.”